Major packaged-food brands like Kraft, General Mills, Campbell Soup Co. and other major industry players have been racing to remove artificial flavors and dyes from their products as part of an effort to cater to consumers’ desires for healthier, more natural foods. And to rescue their sagging sales numbers.
That revolution is showing no sign of slowing down in 2016 and beyond.
John Ruff would know. Now retired, Ruff worked for 36 years for Kraft and the former General Foods, and headed research and development for Kraft’s international and North American divisions. He was also a former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, a Chicago-based food science non-profit.
“I think [the new products are] more than a passing fad,” Ruff told The Huffington Post by phone. “I think we’re several years into it and I’m not seeing this ever totally going away.”
But even as some of America’s most well-established food products -- like Kraft mac-and-cheese or Campbell’s chicken soup -- undergo major facelifts, Ruff believes what’s happening in the packaged-food industry isn’t particularly groundbreaking.
Ruff’s career in food began in 1968 in the UK, and helping to develop products that were deemed healthier by consumers -- and in most cases, generally were healthier -- was on his radar from the start.
In the early days at General Foods, Ruff explained, the company had a line of sugar-free products sweetened with cyclamate, which was banned by the FDA in 1969, and saccharin. Jell-O had an aspartame-sweetened, sugar-free line that debuted in the 1980s. After that, there was a push for savory snacks with less salt. And in the ‘90s came the fat-free boom that resulted in popular products like Snackwell’s and Fig Newtons.
Nutritional advice -- eating more fruits and vegetables, less red meat and less sodium -- has also changed little over the decades, even as diet fads have come and gone.
What’s different this time around, Ruff believes, is that the advents of blogging and social media have made it easier for consumers to voice their concerns about a particular ingredient and inspire a critical mass of others who join their cause.
Ruff pointed to FoodBabe.com blogger Vani Hari’s successful campaign pushing Subway to remove the chemical azodicarbonamide -- which is also found in yoga mats and sneaker rubber -- from its bread as an example of the phenomenon. The ingredient is Food and Drug Administration-approved and has been used for many years in hundreds of common products, but Ruff believes Subway was forced to cave to an ultimately misinformed consumer pressure nonetheless.
“The industry has lost control of the discussion,” Ruff said, adding that he’s urged companies to push back against misconceptions concerning their ingredients. “It’s not new for people to have concerns about chemicals in food, for example. Just look at Rachel Carson, 'Silent Spring,' in 1962. But I can’t see the end to this in the foreseeable future.”
Of course, depending on who you ask, all of this is not necessarily a bad thing -- and Ruff admits that the newer products in development aren’t unhealthy. Still, he believes many of them are sucking up limited research funding and often aren’t genuinely as healthy as consumers believe they are.
Case in point, General Mills was sued last year over its new Cheerios Protein line, which the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest points out has only a small increase in protein content compared to the original product, but a massive, 17-times increase in sugar content. General Mills has maintained, in response, that they are not misleading consumers with how Cheerios Protein has been marketed.
At the same time, eating healthier is an area most Americans need some help with. The nation’s obesity rate among adults continues to increase unabated, and diet-related diseases like diabetes continue to grow along with it. And these new products may not be helping.
“I believe the industry as a whole has pandered to whatever consumers think is healthy,” Ruff said. “I think the problem is that we’re actually going to create a generation now that is eating less healthily than their parents, contrary to what everyone seems to suggest. Most of these changes aren’t making the product less healthy, but it’s certainly not making them more healthy.”
So what, then, does the future hold for Big Food? Ruff expects to see continued disruption from smaller firms, the sort of changes that could render the likes of his former employer irrelevant.
What grows in its place is anyone's guess.
“I'm not smart enough to be able to tell you what the food industry will look like in 10-15 years time, but I think it will be very different from today and the one I grew up with. I'm not sure the companies I spent my time with will still be around," Ruff said. "I think it will be a very different world."
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email email@example.com.
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