Organic food is out of fashion. Welcome genetic modify food with enhanced nutrition. Artificial gotta be better than the natural product, otherwise where is the value add of human?
Sep 24th 2009 – The Economist
The popularity of “natural” food spawns an unnatural response
OVER the past decade, the biggest trend in food marketing has been the shift towards organic, “natural” and even “whole” foods. Consumers in wealthier markets worldwide have demanded foods with minimal processing, in a state as close as possible to their natural one, in the fervent (and often mistaken) belief that such food is healthier for their bodies and for the planet. Ironically, this success is now prompting multinational food giants to accelerate investments in “functional” foods that are intentionally modified to make them healthier or more nutritious.
Consumers are swallowing such products, and the marketing claims that come with them, enthusiastically. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy, expects the global market for functional foods to mushroom from $78 billion in 2007 to $128 billion in 2013. One example of this approach is the enrichment of eggs with omega-3 fatty acids to combat hypertension. Another is the addition of chemicals called sterols to margarines to impede the absorption of cholesterol. The best example is the recent boom in bacteria-enriched yogurts, such as Danone’s blockbuster brand Activia, which are supposed to fight “bloating” (code for constipation).
Functional foods are nothing new, observes Bernard Hours of Danone. He says that his firm, a French dairy giant, was selling yogurt in pharmacies in Barcelona as long ago as 1919. Public-health campaigners have long added vitamin B to flour to fight pellagra and vitamin D to milk to defeat rickets. Adding iodine to salt has also helped in the battle against goitre.
The modern craze for functional foods began much more recently—and it started in Asia, not Europe. Long before Activia came Yakult, a bioactive yogurt-like drink from Japan that is now available worldwide. Encouraged by a government keen to improve public health, Japanese manufacturers have long tinkered with packaged foods to allow them to make health claims. On average, the Japanese spend twice as much per person on functional foods as Americans and nearly three times as much as Europeans. When Coca-Cola wanted to experiment with a supposedly healthy green-tea-flavoured drink, it targeted young Japanese women first.
The trend is now spreading most rapidly in America. Firms selling everything from energy drinks to breakfast foods to artificial sweeteners (Splenda now comes with added fibre) are rushing to add miracle ingredients to their wares in the hope that the supposed benefits will entice customers. A number of rival food giants have even banded together into a coalition (dubbed “Smart Choices”) to agree on common labelling and advertising standards for functional foods.
All this sounds impressive, but there are two factors that could yet trip things up: consumer scepticism and regulatory disapproval. There is reason to think that punters are growing wary of the notion that they can eat their way to fighting fitness. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola was sued by a consumer group over health claims made for its Vitamin Water brand. Danone also faced a similar class-action lawsuit over its yogurts. On September 18th the firm settled that case, admitting no wrongdoing but agreeing to set up a $35m fund to reimburse unhappy yogurt-eaters.
The over-exuberance of some marketers has also irked regulators. When Cheerios, a popular cereal brand owned by General Mills, tried earlier this year to claim on its box that it was “clinically proven to reduce cholesterol”, America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that it had gone too far. More recently, the decision by the Smart Choices coalition to endorse sugary cereals such as Froot Loops has attracted criticism. On September 21st an American Congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, sent an angry letter to the FDA demanding an investigation to see whether unhealthy products were being “misbranded”. If the only real function behind such labels is to bolster profits, consumers and regulators will eventually see through the hype.