Big Food companies rush to rejig recipes

Consumers increasingly demand meals that are not only healthier, but more ‘natural’


Nati Harnik/AP Photo

Have a bite, it’s natural

Jenna Marie Wakani

With their soft, mashed potato insides and crispy exteriors stamped in the shape of a happy face, McCain Foods’ frozen Smiles are marketed as a fun-to-eat children’s snack. They’re not supposed to explode. And yet, that’s what happened inside the Canadian food giant’s laboratory in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., as researchers attempted to “reformulate” the Smile’s long list of unpronounceable ingredients, part of a company-wide strategy to make its packaged foods more natural and wholesome.

Tony Locke, McCain’s director of product development, says the trouble began while trying to ditch mono- and di-glycerides, emulsifiers that help retain moisture in some packaged foods. Emboldened by previous success with frozen pizza pockets, Locke’s team added a mixture of yeast, wheat gluten and flaxseed to the Smiles. “It was working very well in the lab,” says Locke, referring to what was the 40th attempt to rejig the recipe. “But then when we went to scale it up, we actually had these little Smiles going down the line in the plant and coming out of the fryer and exploding. They would literally come out of the oil and burst.”

And that, in the form of a combustible little potato snack, is the huge and complex challenge faced by food companies as consumers increasingly demand meals that are not only healthier, but more “natural” and therefore, it’s reasoned, better for you. With the public spooked by everything from processed foods (too much salt, too many additives) to hormone-raised beef, food producers are suddenly bending over backwards to portray themselves as purveyors of local, fresh ingredients, and their suppliers as earthy, family-run outfits, as opposed to giant factory farms. The phrases “all-natural,” “naturally raised” and “cage-free” are everywhere.

The latest big name to jump into the fray is Burger King. The fast-food giant recently promised to serve only “cage-free” pork and eggs at all of its 7,200 U.S. restaurants by 2017, marking the first time a big fast-food chain has made such a definitive pledge. McDonald’s, meanwhile, has said it will work with its pork suppliers to phase out restrictive gestation crates used to house sows while they raise their piglets. And Tim Hortons is facing calls to go completely cage-free from the Humane Society of the United States, which holds a small number of shares and is proposing a shareholder vote at the company’s annual meeting next week. The ethical treatment of animals is one argument driving the changes, but so too is the assertion that happier livestock translates into healthier food.

As for packaged foods, McCain is just one of several companies that’s now focused on simple, easy-to-understand ingredients. Others include General Mills, with its Pillsbury Simply line of cookies, and Häagen-Dazs’s Five ice cream (with just five ingredients).

But while the sudden shift in focus may seem like a welcome change, critics say it is as much about marketing as it is science. And it has left food producers faced with the prospect of spending billions to overhaul their operations, even though the new and improved approaches may, in reality, do little to improve the nutritional value of the food we eat. Everyone likes the idea of food that’s “natural” and ethical, but, it must be asked, are they willing to pay the price?

For many big food companies, the pressure to change their ways intensified earlier this year. In February, Chipotle Mexican Grill (once owned by McDonald’s) aired an animated ad during the Grammy Awards that became an Internet phenomenon, with some six million YouTube views. The spot depicted the evolution of factory farming over the years, starting with a farmer and his wife standing in a field with a pig and ending with hundreds of pigs being deposited by machines onto conveyor belts, where they were stuffed with pills, stamped into cubes and loaded into the back of trucks.

Then, in March, a long-simmering debate about “pink slime” (beef scraps ground into a slurry, treated with ammonia and used as hamburger filler) went from being a favourite whipping boy of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to a mainstream public issue. By the end of the month, everyone from McDonald’s to Safeway said they would no longer buy beef made with the stuff, while one of the product’s major producers, Beef Products Inc., had to shut down several of its factories, and another ground beef processor, AFA Foods, filed for bankruptcy due to lack of demand.

It’s against this backdrop that Burger King, under pressure from the humane society and shifting consumer sentiment, made its decision to promise to use only cage-free eggs and pork in the U.S. within five years (there are no immediate plans to do the same in Canada). Other companies that have offered similar promises include McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Costco and food giant Unilever, which makes Hellman’s mayonnaise. “We’re going to continue to consume beef, pork, chicken, fish, but we want to feel better about the practices,” says Darren Tristano, the executive vice-president of Technomic, a food industry consulting firm in Chicago.

The idea that getting rid of cages is more “natural” comes as news to many producers. Florian Possberg, 61, has been raising hogs in Humboldt, Sask., near Saskatoon, since 1975. Possberg started out raising sows in communal pens and then eventually switched to the more restrictive gestation crates in the 1980s. Research at the time suggested it was better for the animals and consumers, decreasing the risk of disease and injury. “Sows are pretty aggressive when they live in groups,” says Possberg, a director of the Canadian Pork Council. He adds that roughly half of the 5,400 sows on his farms are housed in gestation crates, while the rest are in groups, estimating that it would cost more than $1 million to switch over the rest of the operation.

It’s a similar story with egg farmers, who, several decades ago, moved to caged systems because it was viewed as cleaner and helped prevent the birds from attacking and eating each other. But animal welfare groups claim the use of small “battery” cages that each house several laying hens are too cramped, preventing the birds from engaging in natural behaviours such as scratching, nesting or flapping their wings. With pressure mounting south of the border, the United Egg Producers reached a deal last year with the U.S. humane society to promote the use of so-called “enriched” cages, which are bigger and offer extras like perches and nesting areas. The two groups are also calling for Congress to pass laws requiring new standards in a bid to avoid a costly patchwork of state regulations, and also to ensure individual operators who make the switch aren’t put at a “competitive disadvantage.” Translation: if everyone has to absorb the same costs, they can more easily be passed on to consumers via higher prices.

In Canada, both pork and egg producers are looking to the National Farm Animal Care Council for guidance. The seven-year-old group devises codes of practice for the industry with input from producers, scientists, government and animal welfare groups. It’s in the process of updating several of its codes, including those for hogs and poultry, although results aren’t expected for a few years. “It takes a long time,” says Jackie Wepruk, the council’s general manager, of the typically Canadian consensus-oriented approach. “But if you look south of the border, you’ll see the divisive way animal welfare is being tackled there. Most decisions are being made in a knee-jerk, reactionary sort of way.”

But Peter Clarke, chairman of the Egg Farmers of Canada, says the industry may have to move more quickly depending on what happens in the U.S. “The major food purchasers won’t accept significantly different practices on one side of the border or the other,” he says, adding the cost of such an industry-wide switch would be significant.

Whether it’s instant noodles or the oft-mocked Twinkie, most products that come in a bag or a box have historically been marketed based on their convenience, not provenance, and come loaded with artificial colours, flavours and other additives—all designed to maintain taste while boosting shelf life.

At McCain, the decision to reformulate its entire lineup of products (more than 80 since 2010) to include only “real” or natural ingredients represented the biggest-ever undertaking for the company’s research and development team, according to Locke. The move was based on extensive customer research that suggested consumers were growing wary of additives that were synthetic-sounding. Nor was the challenge strictly limited to McCain’s own operations. “We might buy a seasoning mix from a primary supplier, but of course they’re getting all of the components to assemble the mix from another group of suppliers,” Locke says. “So it was a complicated effort.”

All of the tinkering has translated into big business for another sector of the food industry: flavour companies. Though many consumers don’t realize it, many ingredients now viewed as undesirable—salt, sugar and other additives—do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to taste. Once they’re taken out, new flavours must be added to maintain a product’s appeal. And not just any flavouring solution will do. Bob Eilerman, the head of science and technology at Switzerland’s Givaudan, one of the biggest flavour and fragrance companies in the world, estimates that more than 50 per cent of Givaudan’s customers now want “natural” flavourings, as opposed to artificial ones, even though there’s not much difference (other than cost). “Natural has good connotations behind it,” says Eilerman. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about chemicals. Whether it’s a strawberry flavour that came from crushed strawberries or from one of our laboratories, the chemical composition that we’re trying to create is very similar.”

It raises the question of whether the current fixation on natural and ethical is ultimately worth the price. McCain seems to think so. Calla Farn, a company spokesperson, says sales of some reformulated McCain products have enjoyed gains of up to 10 per cent. As for the cost, Farn admits that the new-and-improved products are more expensive to make, but says the company “worked hard to identify savings in other areas to ensure our products remained cost-neutral.”

Not all companies may be so lucky. In the case of cage-free eggs, Tristano estimates that the cost will go up by 25 cents to 40 cents per dozen, which threatens to squeeze the margins on a simple breakfast sandwich. That’s because fast-food operators typically have a much tougher time passing on rising commodity prices than do grocery stores because of intense competition. “It’s about three cents an egg on a product that sells for $2 or $3, so it doesn’t seem like a lot,” he says. “But when you can only increase prices by about two per cent and you’re getting hit by a per cent and a half just to have cage-free, that’s a big deal.”

Ultimately, a bigger risk to the industry may come from the public’s new heightened expectations from food companies. As they change the way food is made, there is every likelihood consumers will turn their attention to some other unappetizing aspect of the mass-production process. “Once you move forward, there’s no turning back,” warns Tristano. “And let’s be honest: if we really cared that much, we’d all be vegetarians.”


Big Food companies rush to rejig recipes

  1. I wish life could be simpler. I can’t wait to grow my own vegetables in my yard, tasting the freshness of eating a tomatoe right off the plant. I’m not complaining about life in Canada because we have it very good. At don’t get me wrong I enjoy fast food, but with reality sinking in on the risks associated with consuming it, I’ve drastically stopped. Our fast-paced life with so many things to worry about and all the running around really impacts our health. I challenge anyone reading this to steer away from frozen foods and packaged goods and switch to having a salad with veggies or chicken at least 2 times a week. Eating healthier really does make you feel better. I heard a good quote recently and its stuck in my – “If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?”

  2. No, Mr. Tristano, you smug git, simply wanting the food we eat not to suffer while it lives does not at all equate to not being willing to kill it humanely. And wanting to eat foods that are natural and that hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have prepared our bodies to properly process and use doesn’t necessarily mean we disagree with the concept of eating meat.

  3. I agree that there is too much processing of food, but a kneejerk reaction to anything but organic food will have serious consequences. Massive increases in food prices will strike at the poorest of us, who spend the largest share of their budgets on food. That is why any organic revolution should be selective and science-based. We need to ask what the evidence is on particular changes before demanding them as consumers.

    GMO’s for instance, are nutritionally the same as organically grown fruits and vegetables (and have the potential to be nutritionally superior, eg. the yellow rice product). Indeed, with genetic engineering we can reduce the need for pesticides. Free range chickens may actually be less healthy than those kept in coops, because they are exposed to more pollutants and more likely to get diseases. Moreover, if we want truly organic food, local may not be the best place to look (plus in Canada, if you’re a real locavore, you’d better like eating tubers in winter). Ending agricultural subsidies and opening up our borders to trade with farm-oriented developing countries would alleviate poverty, and provide cheaper food.

    At the same time there are some things that are causes for concern. Because so much meat is processed in the same few plants, the risk of infection spreading is high. Declining biodiversity also makes plantlife more vulnerable to the spread of diseases. Genetically modified foods do create tricky legal issues that present copyright law is not addressing particularly well. Corn subsidies are, similarly, an utter disaster, fueling the proliferation of cheap calories (high-fructose corn syrup), an unnatural food source for cows, and inefficient biofuels* (whose land-use costs make them a net loss for the environment).

    An obsessive focus on efficient production and cheap food got us into this mess. A single-minded focus on all things natural and organic may create yet another mess.

    *We should import Brazilian bio-fuel, derived from sugarcane, a far more efficient source of energy… so long as the Brazilians don’t chop down the rain forest to produce it.

  4. Stephen Harper is helping. Hidden in the omnibill budget is a change in regulation with regard to slaughterhouse. Dead animals can now be brought to the slaughterhouse whereas currently only live animals are brought to the slaughterhouse. The government claims this flexibility is necessary. For who? For the business, of course. Now, diseased animal that are dead could be sent for slaughter and no one would know. The government claims that there would be checks. With hundreds of jobs cut in the department, who is doing the monitoring? Skip buying Canadian meat altogether.