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Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Within the past few months, the airwaves have been filled with news that big companies are moving away from scary-sounding food chemicals and additives. Kraft is removing its trademark yellowish orange dye from boxed mac and cheese. Panera announced that by 2016, artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners and flavors will no longer be on the menu. Chipotle decided that "when it comes to [their] food, genetically modified ingredients don't make the cut."
Many of the companies making these changes are doing so in the name of better health for their customers and being good to the environment. We all want those things, so I'm not arguing against that.
But even if all of our food was made in the most environmentally sound manner with the highest quality ingredients, would it be enough to heal the world and our bodies?
Here's the thing. Food trends are shaped by consumer demand. Consumer demand, in turn, is driven by our needs and wants as well as hopes and fears. As wonderful as the internet can be, it allows information – truth and rumors alike – to spread like wildfire. When I get questions from readers, callers, and people I meet, they often stem from something they saw on Facebook or discovered through a Google search.
In the past few years, this has had an undeniable effect on the food industry. Walk into any grocery store and pick up a box of fruit snacks. Chances are, the front of the box will advertise all of the ingredients the fruit snacks don't have – gluten, artificial sweeteners, GMOs, cholesterol, trans fat, preservatives, and who knows what else.
And why? Companies of all sorts are constantly jockeying for customers – to gain new ones and maintain their regulars. They'll invest lots of time and money in rebranding, reformulating, and repackaging if their customers demand it and profits depend on it. They may even further contribute to misinformation, continuing the cycle.
On their website, Chipotle says that we're likely to encounter GMOs "just about everywhere," because "it's estimated that more than 80% of the processed foods consumed in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients. If you're consuming food or beverages containing ingredients derived from corn or soy (which is just about all processed foods), you're likely to be eating GMOs."
In this case, Chipotle may be going so far as to prey on consumer ignorance. In truth, the amount of GMOs found in most processed foods can't even be detected. Genetically modified DNA is destroyed with the high temperatures used during processing. As for syrups and oils coming from corn and soy, they are highly purified. After distillation, any genetically modified DNA and proteins are gone. The final product is chemically indistinguishable from ingredients made from non-GMO crops.
Besides, is a sandwich piled high with grass-fed beef and hormone-free cheese, slathered with artisan aioli really healthier? I'm much more concerned about excess fat, sodium, and calories than the all-naturalness. It's easy to go overboard when you think you're putting better ingredients in your body.
The ingredients being removed from our foods have long safety records, are backed by scientific consensus, and are FDA-approved. Further, they tend to be cheaper than their more "natural" alternatives. It may be a challenge for chain restaurants and food companies to make palatable changes to their items without raising prices. Ultimately, they may end up losing customers who can no longer afford their feel-good eats.
As cynical as it may sound, there is a bottom line, even for the companies that make a show of their philanthropy. So be aware of advertising and marketing tactics that aim to make you feel better about parting with your money. In the end, you're still spending. And fruit snacks will always be fruit snacks.