Beyond Organic (part 2)

Annie’s Homegrown, Honest Tea, Applegate Farms, Toms of Maine, Cascadian Farms, Green and Black’s Chocolate, Kashi, Naked Juice, Seeds of Change, Ben and Jerry’s, Lara Bar, Epic Provisions, Earthbound Organics, RX Bars, Frontera Foods, Evol Foods, Smart Balance and Earth Balance, Gardein, Udi’s, Glutino, Dagoba Chocolate, Justin’s Organic Nut Butter products, Sabra Hummus, Kevita Kombucha and Coconut Kefir drinks, Zico coconut waters, Alexia Foods, Skinny Pop, Oatmega Bars, New Chapter, Burt’s Bees, Kettle chips, Late July, Muir Glen, Immaculate Baking Co., Garden of Life, Erewhon, Peace Cereal, Bear Naked, Tribe, Van’s, Suja juice, Back to Nature…

What is the going rate for one “organic” soul?

What do all of these “natural” food, body care, and supplement companies have in common? These are just some of the pioneering, independent companies that have been bought out by mega-food conglomerates since the year 2000. Many of their acquisitions have actually happened just within the past 3-5 years, and the rate is increasing because all of the industry power-players have seen there is money to be had by investing in natural, organic, non-gmo etc…
A tell-tale sign these mergers were occurring is how much more readily available many of these brands became in the mass market. No longer do people have to only go to the local health food store, or even the natural grocery chains, instead they can just buy much of it at whatever typical grocery is in their neighborhood.

Now I’m going to say something that isn’t a terribly popular thing to say or hear among die-hard natural health advocates – But make no mistake, these mergers/acquisitions are, in a way, a win!

*gasp*, *shock*, “Why? How?” you might ask…
Well because it demonstrates a few important things – For starters it shows that voting with our dollars can promote large-scale change! With increasingly more people over the past decade expressing some degree of interest in eating healthier, cleaner, simpler, more organic, more “natural” foods, the demand necessitated increased supply and availability. These industry giant companies like Kellog’s, Campbell’s, ConAgra, Hershey’s, Nestle, Clorox, Colgate, Kraft, General Mills, Post, Hormel, Tyson, Pepsi and Coca-Cola etc… (who already were used to acquiring smaller brands on the regular, regardless of their “natural/organic” status), were not about to lose a major chunk of the market share. Then, with the industry scale power behind these brand buy-outs, suddenly the brands could be propelled to increasingly more market venues – and the more consumers see something, hear about something, and have access to it, the further it can continue to spread.

Do you want Kale fries with that?

Now we live in an age where White Castle, McDonald’s and even Burger King have gone out on a limb to offer vegan/vegetarian options on their grill menus! What is this world coming to? Glass half full = hooray! This means more access to alternative food/dietary options (perhaps your “weirdo” vegan cousin doesn’t have to keep being the black-sheep of the family anymore?). Hopefully this can further create access to healthier options made with less artificial ingredients. It certainly helps people be more open minded to these things being incorporated into their own lives and the lives of their families. However incrementally, it is changing the dinner table discussion towards health, and it is normalizing thoughts, concerns, palates, and dietary lifestyles that used to be considered “fringe” by dominant culture.

However, before you go feeling quick to accuse me of too much boot-licking of the food industry empire, I do feel responsibility to share the glass half empty side of this story as well. Or maybe not so much as being negative with a glass half empty, but more like being a pragmatic realist.
Industry titans – whose primary modus operandi is profit above all, and who have perpetuated themselves for a generation now by seeking “the big fish eat the little ones” dominance (as prescribed by the practice of absolute capitalism) – do not have you and your family’s best interests at heart. I hate to break the news to you, but we are all just walking dollar signs. Asking or expecting companies who simultaneously fund initiatives to fight against GMO labeling requirements, and that just as easily utilize artificial and unhealthy ingredients in the 50 or so other “conventional” brands under their belts, to in turn carry on and uphold the full natural/organic standards that their acquired brands may have originally been founded on, is not unlike asking a fox to guard your chicken house. (They can’t help it, its just in their nature.)

Sure, they show good faith in changing with the times and providing more of these things people are wanting, but they change/adapt to the times in order to stay on the top of the heap. So yes, things change, even for the better, but that doesn’t mean its all stemming from some sort of benevolent intent. Its more like “business as usual”.

Now we see a fissure of sorts, in the dedicated natural products brands and the industry’s customer base. On the one hand you have the purist’s camp – some of whom have even been die-hard purists since this organic food movement really started to get its legs under it in the 1960s. These folks may find out that some product they liked got bought by an industry titan with some questionable ethics, and they would rather disavow any further use/consumption of said product than support such a brand merger. They will find an alternative source now for the thing they liked, or they will make it from scratch themselves, or they will go without it.
On the other hand you have the moderate’s camp – the most common, average, and well meaning people, many of whom sort of drifted into the natural/organic foods stream within the last decade or so, perhaps somewhat out of happenstance (i.e. they heard it was good for them and figured it didn’t hurt to give it a try. They tried something they liked and were happily surprised that something healthier for them could taste good. They saw a more natural/organic equivalent being made of a product they already loved so they felt compelled to make the switch. Or perhaps they found natural and organic things to be more available where they shopped and increasingly more affordable – and convenience is king.) These folks are happily embracing the market growth of convenient, healthier, more organic, more naturally based products. These folks are the reason there ultimately has been the industry growth at all. These folks are the primary driving force of the mass-market changes. But they are not the pioneers and initiators, they just got on board once the purists had pushed hard enough, long enough, to garner a significant amount of recognition and tip some scales.

The moderate, average consumer happily rides the wave. They go in to health-type stores now, and buy certain kinds of products, when 10 years ago the thought might have never crossed their mind. They still may not eat a fast food conglomerate veggie burger, at least not often, because they know heavy consumption of any kind of “fast food” isn’t terribly healthy in general. But they also might not think twice about indulging from time to time.
This is most of us.

The purist sits back a bit dumbfounded that their next most favorite “natural” treat or staple just got assimilated by a company they tend to conclude is like the devil incarnate. They wring their hands and start the hunt for whatever small, private and local brands still exist which they can morally support and source their sustenance from. When feeling inspired to keep pushing the envelope they’ll call for boycotts, and make flowcharts of which brands have swallowed which so that others can stay in the know and make informed decisions as they see fit, and they may change their shopping patterns and make sure that everyone around them hears why, loud and clearly.

If real, honest and substantial change for our betterment is what we’re after, I believe that neither of these above approaches is quite going to get us there.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this article series for a proposal on the next steps we can take to further integrity in the industry for our best interests…

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