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Food Industry Works Hard to Improve Its Tarnished Image

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Some leading food and beverage companies have announced new measures to improve their industry’s reputation and win back the trust of consumers. For example, advertising of unhealthy junk food to minors is scheduled to be phased out within this decade, and less confusing food labeling is also in the works, according to Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an international network organization for hundreds of retailers and manufacturers that just held its annual summit in Paris, France.

“The consumer goods industry acknowledges its role in the health and wellness of society, the issues around it, and the imperative need for actions. We have to scale up our efforts. We have to accelerate existing initiatives. We have to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogues and efforts,” said Paul Bulcke, the C.E.O. of Nestle, one of the world’s biggest food and drink manufacturers at the meeting. “We need to show [consumers] we are a responsive and responsible industry, now more than ever,” he added.

Besides working towards greater protection of children and more user-friendly labeling, the CGF also called for the industry to increase awareness of the impact modern food production has on the environment such as greenhouse gas emission and deforestation, and to employ effective countermeasures.

At the center of criticism directed at food companies is, of course, the obesity crisis that keeps worsening around the globe. Processed food products that are high in sugar, salt and fat content are seen as leading causes of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While it would be most desirable if manufacturers made healthier foods – the kinds people used to eat – the problem is that real food isn’t really profitable, said Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times. By processing food, instead of selling it in its natural state, companies are able to “add value,” not necessarily for consumers but for retailers who can warehouse and shelf them almost endlessly. For example, potatoes may rot within weeks, but chips last forever; fresh bread may go stale overnight, but the enriched varieties remain soft almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, extending shelf life and reducing spoilage makes processed foods not only more profitable but also much inferior, if not outright harmful, in terms of their nutritional quality.

It would be naïve to think the industry would be willing to abandon the business practices it so successfully developed over many decades only because the public has become more concerned over health issues in connection with their products.

“Food companies are well aware of the health crisis their products cause, and recognize that the situation is unsustainable,” Bittman said. “But […] as long as even one of the big food companies remains cynical and uncaring about its market, they all must remain so.”

And yet, there are changes happening behind the scenes and put in place without much fanfare, even though they are somewhat revolutionary. For instance, industry giants like Nestle and General Mills have begun reducing sugar content in cereals and beverages without publicly saying so, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal. Restaurant chains from Applebee’s to Starbucks include more and more low-calorie options in their menus. And both manufacturers and restaurant operators are making what they call “stealth health” modifications in their recipes, from cookies to fast food favorites, cutting back on salt and fat and finding alternatives to maintain taste.

The companies proceed with these changes gradually and even secretly because they don’t always know how far they can go without loosing customers. Later on, if they succeed in reformulating their products to people’s liking, they then can put out additional health claims, expand their market shares, and polish their image, said Julie Jargon, a food writer for the Wall Street Journal who follows these trends.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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