Alissa Hamilton, author of the book “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice” describes the undisclosed process by which orange juice is produced. If you look at the ingredient list on an average Tropicana Orange Juice container, you would think that you are getting the equivalent of freshly squeezed oranges. “Pure and Natural” is what the ads tell us. PepsiCo and many other processed food companies are only required by law to list the ingredients in their foods and beverages, not the process by which those ingredients are used to create the final product.
Is this really a big deal? If oranges are all that make up the ingredient list, then what’s the difference? Well, Hamilton concludes that Tropicana Orange Juice doesn't possess the same amount of fibers, vitamin C and other nutritional benefits that oranges provide. To understand why, we need to understand how the juice is made. Did you ever wonder why the juice in the carton lasts a couple of months? Clearly an orange wouldn’t last that long. Hamilton explains that the juice is heavily pasteurized, heated and stripped of oxygen. Once deoxidized, the juice is put into huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year. During this time, the juice is stripped of its flavor-providing chemical because they are volatile. When it’s ready for packaging, flavour companies are brought in to engineer flavor to make it taste fresh. But here’s the kicker, to avoid adding another ingredient to the list, the companies use orange-derived substances, essence and oils. Companies break down the essence and oils into individual chemicals and recombine them. As Hamilton put it, “With orange juice, it’s masking the processing procedure rather than the diversity of ingredients”.
So what are the implications of this?
For some companies, an increased pressure to reveal production processes will mean dramatic revelations of some of the health and safety effects associated with how they make food and beverages. The challenge, I think eventually, will be to sustain a market for high-margin processed food in an environment where consumers and regulation are demanding a move back towards raw non-processed food. PepsiCo, through its recent release of its Tropolis product, is ultimately trying to do just that by positioning it as fruit in a package. But then why not just eat the fruit separately without the package? The line between processed and whole food will likely start to become finer and companies will either lose the battle for consumers or they will find some very impressive marketing approaches to convince the consumer that it is worth spending more money on processed food items that are in reality similar to their whole food counterparts.
Whatever the case, companies will grapple with the question of whether humanity is smarter than nature. Are we able to recreate the synergistic effect that nature provides nutritionally in the food it produces by engineering it through science? As I've stressed in other posts, answering yes to this question is highly dangerous and likely informed by our own hubris.
For those companies volunteering information on process, some of them will be found guilty of greenwashing. The Tropicana website proclaims "Grove to Glass" but then quite humorously elaborates on 8 steps required to actually achieve this feat. Unfortunately, the descriptions are largely sugarcoated like the "safety always" tab where they claim the importance of pasteurizing the juice. But this step is only necessary because of the underlying dangers of processing food. This step is not because companies are going out of their way to protect their consumers, they are merely abiding by the law so that they can prolong the shelf-life of the product, the direct consequence of which exponentially increases sales. Michelle Obama is presently working on pushing companies to voluntarily label the ingredients and nutritional information of their products. But this is a far cry from getting companies to volunteer a non-sugarcoated version of how their food is processed.
Finally, the increased pressure to reveal the process by which food is made means that companies cannot rely on the ingredient and nutrition list as the extent of their transparency. Consumers will increasingly demand this information and eventually regulation will require it. But doing so will unleash a wave of resistance by the private sector. In the same way that companies have lobbied against the releasing of their ingredient list, they’ll be especially resistant to any regulation that imposes transparency on the process of making food. Doing so would compromise their intellectual property. This is another interesting circumstance where the firm’s quest for competitive advantage runs up against the goals of sustainability.
The David Suzuki Foundation ranks seafood according to the process by which it is produced and subsequently distinguishes fish based on how it is caught. This is an important step in understanding what we’re eating because it gets to the complexity of the process that is otherwise overlooked when considering the end product. Loblaw has announced that they will source all seafood from sustainable sources by 2013 but they are finding variation in what suppliers are using to claim "sustainability". For something as tricky as seafood, which some argue can never be produced in a sustainable way, companies will likely have to be part of an ongoing dialogue with multiple stakeholders on the definition of sustainable seafood that balances the social, ecological, and economic pillars of the triple bottom line.