Don’t get me wrong—I’d love nothing more than to see the mass consumption of highly processed junk food come to an end! While I’m excited about the progress the food movement has made, I’m also frightened. Why? I’ve worked in Big Food, and I know how it thinks. Much like a virus mutating to survive, Big Food has proven to have incredible staying power. So while there’s no doubt food companies have taken it on the chin lately, here are 9 reasons why I’m scared Big Food may bounce back:
- The shift away from junk food may be overstated. Yes, leaders like Kraft, Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mondelez, and ConAgra are all struggling, and many traditional processed food brands have sucked wind. But let’s take Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, a proverbial American staple, as an example. Kraft’s market share of the packaged mac ‘n cheese category has plummeted 4 percentage points to 78 percent since March 2010. And who are the winners? Brands like Annie’s and Horizon. And while I’m not trying to minimize the impact of cleaner labels, a box of organic mac ‘n cheese isn’t health food. In fact, it isn’t even real food. Yes, it may be a better choice, but it’s still highly processed food and unlikely to provide any health benefits.
- Big Food’s “healthy” appetite for acquisitions will continue to dilute the meaning of organic and better for you foods. Hardly a couple months goes by without the purchase of another up-and-coming, cleaner label brand by Big Food. General Mills acquired Annie’s in September 2014, Mondelez acquired Enjoy Life in February 2015, and rumors continue to swirl about many other companies that are on the auction block. But as soon as these cleaner, somewhat healthier, organic brands get in the hands of Big Food, their integrity will suffer and their mentality will shift from making somewhat healthier, more sustainable food into making more money off yet another version of highly processed foods.
- The very meaning of organic is under fire thanks to Big Food’s infiltration of organizations like the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Food advocacy organizations like The Cornucopia Institute and independent food retailers are speaking up and claiming Big Food’s “Power Grab” will harm the integrity of the “certified organic” designation. Yet since Big Food controls more and more organic market share, it’s doubtful critics will be able to keep Big Food’s negative influence contained.
- The broader lobbying clout of Big Food is frightening. The same companies that were able to declare pizza a vegetable still control much of the legislative and regulatory processes. Until the food movement is able to make substantial inroads influencing voters at the ballot box, Big Food holds the cards and food advocates will be left begging for scraps around the policy-making table.
- Big Food is re-asserting its domination at the shelf. One of the great things that has happened with the influx of new, upstart healthier brands has been the big powerhouse companies have lost some leverage at shelf. Believe it or not, retailers love an underdog with some moxie, and they’re more than happy to become less dependent on the big players. But with the latest wave of acquisitions, Big Food is wresting back control of the shelf and once again wielding more power. And at retailers like Whole Foods and co-ops where Big Food historically was the odd man out, these companies now have a real seat at the table and will likely throw around lots of money to exert even more control at the shelf.
- Demographics may ultimately work in Big Food’s favor. While millennials are notorious for their distrust and disdain of big corporations, some research questions whether they’re truly willing to say “no” to lower prices over the long-term, even if it means compromising their values. Furthermore, as the gulf between “haves” and “have-nots” widens with the decline of the United States’ middle class, one wonders if future American families will be able to afford real food options over packaged foods, especially when the next economic downturn hits.
- Deep pockets make Big Food a formidable force. With the dollars to hire the brightest talent, invest in big advertising campaigns, and influence nutrition research and public health policy, the resources are definitely stacked in Big Food’s favor.
- Processed food companies are masters of the art of deception. Armed with researchers who help them understand how to manipulate consumers and the lobbying power to keep regulations to a minimum, Big Food continues to be very successful in creating an unfair playing field. The bottom line is most consumers don’t stand a chance against Big Food’s marketing muscle, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
- Failure of the food movement to coalesce around a singular call to action continues to play in food companies favor. There’s far too much arguing within the food movement, and I can tell you first hand Big Food loves it. All the disagreements, back-biting, and name calling between factions only cause to weaken the food movement’s potential. So whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, paleo, or meat eater who’s concerned about food, let’s forget our differences. Instead, let’s focus it on a core area of agreement—REAL food.
What do you think? Are we at the end of the Junk Food era? Or are you afraid Big Food will rebound and continue to wreak havoc on our health? Regardless of how optimistic or pessimistic you may feel, I believe the implication is the same. While much progress has been made by the food movement over the past 15 years, we’ve still got a long, hard fight ahead to make REAL food the mainstream choice.