Confession: I Was a Big Food Executive

Bruce Bradley, a former food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco, was profiled on Grist and he comes across as a sane, level-headed man who has been bamboozled by the industry in which he worked for more than 15 years. The piece, titled Confessions of a Former Big Food Executive starts like this:

The landscape has changed dramatically since I started my career at Nabisco in 1992. In response to Wall Street profit pressures and the growing power of retailers like Walmart, the food industry has undergone a tremendous wave of consolidation and cost cutting.

This has hurt our food supply in many ways. First, huge, multinational food companies now dominate the landscape. Wielding far greater lobbying power and much deeper pockets, these companies have been very successful in stagnating food regulation. Second, cost savings have been a key profit driver for the industry, but they’ve had a devastating impact on both food quality and food safety. Think factory farming and GMOs, just to name a couple of examples. Third, as consumers’ health concerns have increased, processed food manufacturers have become even more aggressive in making dubious health claims or co-opting fad diets to market their brands and develop new products.

The net impact of this transformed landscape has been disastrous from a public health perspective — with obesity rates skyrocketing and a never-ending flood of food recalls.

Visit his blog and you’ll see that Bradley is from Minneapolis. Minnesota has not been known for good food; in the movie Fargo (1996), when Marge, the cop, asks a friend for a tip on a good place to eat, she is steered to the buffet at the Radisson. The view is appalling – the food is mostly over-cooked, fried, and/or covered in cheese!

Bruce Bradley writes like a new convert; he’s seen the truth and he’s mad as heck about what’s been going on. He’s particularly perturbed about “natural” food colors, flavors, and other additives. Here is a snippet from a recent blog post, Processed Food: Trick or Treat? Check out some of these frequently used food additives that qualify as “all natural.” They might be a little more than you bargained for:

  • Beaver Anal Glands: This bitter, very smelly, orange-brown substance is also known as castoreum. In nature it’s combined with the beaver’s urine and used to mark its territory. In the processed food world it’s commonly used in both food and beverages, typically as vanilla or raspberry flavoring. Watch out though, you won’t find it on the ingredient list since processed food manufacturers can legally call it “natural flavoring.”
  • Cow’s Stomach: Known as rennet and derived from the mucosa of veal calves’ fourth stomach, this ingredient is frequently used in the production of cheese to curdle the milk. Often listed simply as “enzymes” on an ingredient panel, it can be very hard to know exactly what you’re eating when you buy cheese.
  • Hair and / or feathers: Called L-cysteine or cystine by the processed food world, this non-essential amino acid is made from human hair or duck feathers and is used as a dough conditioner to improve the texture of breads and baked goods. Again, since cystine comes from natural sources, you can eat “natural” and still have hair in your food.
  • Beetle Juice: No, I’m not talking about the 1988 movie starring Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. This beetle juice is used in our food and is often called shellac, resinous glaze, or confectioner’s glaze on ingredient labels. Made from the secretions of the female lac bug, this substance is scraped from trees and branches then processed to be used on some of your favorite shiny candies and sprinkles.
  • Crushed bugs: Known as Carmine, Crimson Lake, Cochineal, or Natural Red #4 on ingredient labels, this red food coloring additive is made from insects like the cochineal beetle. Frequently used in yogurts and beverages to give them a ruby-red color, a cochineal beetle can be a tough to spot on ingredient labels since it can be listed as a natural color.