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Consumers Spoke, Big Food Listened: How the Food Market is Changing

By 3p Contributor

By Andrea Tolu

Once upon a time, consumers believed that food brands truly cared about their wellbeing. Now, that trust is at an all-time low.

What broke the spell was the uncovering of certain food companies’ practices, such as using addictive ingredients, marketing sugar-loaded food to kids, and sponsoring favorable research studies. The only thing big brands could reasonably do to bring back consumers’ love was to give them what they asked for: healthier food and more transparency.

Here are four examples of such initiatives, which are likely to change the food market to come.

McDonald’s and cage-free eggs

When, at the end of 2015, McDonald’s committed to using cage-free eggs only by 2025, the company was late to the party. Unilever and Burger King, just to name two, had already committed to doing so. However, the fast-food chain's timing was perfect, and after its announcement more and more companies pledged to do the same.

This shift is not without controversy. Cage-free simply means that chickens are out of the cage, not necessarily roaming outdoors. As was pointed out in a New York Times report, this could even be worse for them, and also for plant workers. On the other hand, this move is a step toward the improved treatment of animals and more nutritious eggs.

Mars to customers: Once a week is enough

Last April, Mars, Inc. did something unheard of for a large food company: The food label announced its intention to “help consumers differentiate and choose between ‘everyday’ and ‘occasional’ options.”

In other words, the company will flag (both on packaging and online) those products that should be consumed no more than once per week, due to their high sodium and sugar content. At the same time, other products will be reformulated to make them suitable for more frequent consumption.

Is Mars keeping up with the promise? As it seems, it’s still a work in progress. For example, a Mars bar is described as a “treat that can be enjoyed occasionally as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.” For a Snickers bar, however, the company used the same phrase, but without the word “occasionally.”

Tesco going public on food waste

From field to store, the food supply chain is a pipeline full of holes and leaks, not to mention what goes to waste in our own homes. According to a 2013 FAO report, 1.3 billion tons of edible food is wasted every year.

Many initiatives are underway around the globe to tackle the issue. Leading supermarket chains, for example, started to donate surplus food to charities. In May 2014, Tesco went a step further and started to publish its food waste data.

In fact, the latest statistics show that Tesco’s food waste went up this year. Transparency is a double-edged sword (which is probably why no other retailer has followed suit so far), but accountability can be a great push to improve.

Panera Bread and clean ingredients

After decades of undisputed popularity, the concept of “diet” is fading. Now consumers think in terms of “healthy” and “clean” eating (however vague these terms may be). Also, they want to know how their food was sourced and processed, the environmental cost of producing it, and whether animals were treated humanely and farmers paid fairly.

Café-bakery chain Panera Bread understood all of this early on, adopting a wider approach instead of laser-focused initiatives. In 2014, the company started to use more free-range meat with less antibiotics, and more recently it announced that it will remove artificial flavors and preservatives from its grocery line.

Why all that is important

There are at least three good reasons why we should care about what large food companies are doing, even if we never buy anything from them.

First of all, how they source their ingredients affects everyone, not only their customers. For example, the massive shift to cage-free eggs is likely to change the egg industry forever: By 2025, caged eggs will be the exception.

Second, when profit-driven corporations decide to implement changes that require a considerable logistic effort (or to publish data that could potentially harm their image), it means that the change in consumers’ expectations reached a point of no return. Companies simply can no longer afford to ignore them.

Finally, initiatives like these prove that when enough consumers move in the same direction, they become a force to be reckoned with.

Image credit: Flickr/darvoiteau

Andrea Tolu is a freelance writer who helps startups and companies in the Food&Tech sector build a solid online presence, to find clients and investors. You can reach out to him via Twitter (@toluand), or subscribe to his newsletter.

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