Can we, should we avoid mega-food companies?

A freshly prepared batch of Soylent. Photo via Wikipedia

A freshly prepared batch of Soylent. Photo via Wikipedia

We’ve all seen the various charts floating around the interwebz showing which mega-corporations own which food brands. The one posted below came to me via Alex Hillsberg’s blog post which I highly recommend. The gist of his analysis: when it comes to food, freedom of choice is just an illusion. So, look at the charts, and then answer the questions I’ve asked at the bottom. You can also follow the link to a post about Soylent: a 21st century solution to avoiding mega-food corporations? (Of course, if the concept of this “total food” takes off, big companies will for sure produce it.) And, just for good measure, mealy worms.

First, the charts:

Food Conglomerates_Infographic_Final 2

Used with permission from Alex Hillsberg, some restrictions may apply.

Okay, I have three questions:

1. How many of the name brands listed in the charts above does your household buy at least once a month?

2. Which of the products listed are “core” items on your shopping list: that is, you actively seek them out when you’re shopping for that particular food item (e.g., you always buy Maxwell House when you’re after coffee)?

3. Do you ever purchase food from local/regional producers, like eggs, vegetables, meat or processed items (homemade bread, for example)? Roughly how often? Only seasonally at farmers markets?

Now, I’m going to take this one step further. Over the last century, our society has obviously moved away from direct access to locally produced food–yes, we’re taking small steps back in that direction, but just by virtue of the abandonment of the farm life for the cities we have become more reliant on major food processors and distributors.

By extension, you could argue that if the trend away from local/natural food continues, we are headed for Soylent. Never heard of Soylent? Check out the current post from Lee Hutchinson who has been blogging about Soylent for the past year–including about his week of living exclusively on Soylent. You can find his earlier posts through the link I’ve provided.

Finally, Dale Hobson has, of course, found the squirmiest, squishiest example of 21st century food solutions. Check it out here.

And don’t forget to answer those questions.

Here are my answers, to get you going:

1) I buy at least a couple of dozen big food company products each month. It may vary from month to month, but I buy them.

2) There are very few products that hold my loyalty. I bounce around, but I’m still buying big company items.

3) I live on a farm and grow a huge percentage of my seasonal vegetables, preserving the surplus for winter. I also have laying hens, so I haven’t bought a commercial egg in years. As a result, I only visit farmers markets a couple of times a summer. I don’t eat meat so I don’t buy that from local producers.

Oh, one more link: Martha Foley’s conversation with Dr. John Bramley, who is one of the speakers participating in the Miner Institute’s series on 21st century agriculture. A reality check.

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18 Responses to “Can we, should we avoid mega-food companies?”

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  1. Hank says:

    OK, of the things on that chart, we don’t buy any of those beers, coffees, tortilla chips or chocolate – ever. We always buy micro-brews (beer), local fair trade coffee, Swiss chocolate (Lindt) and a different brand of blue tortilla chips.

    In addition, we never buy potato chips, peanut butter, or soft drinks of any kind. Occasionally we will buy ice cream (Chapman’s)

    Of the items on the chart, we do regularly (weekly) buy Post Shredded Wheat (actually Shredded Wheat ‘n Bran) and also Carr’s table water crackers. That is definitely brand loyalty for us so far as the items on the chart are concerned.

    We shop at the Ottawa Farmer’s market every week from May through October except when we are out of town. That includes fruits and vegetables (when in season) and some other items such as cheese, spring rolls, and maybe cookies. At other times, we do shop at a chain grocery store for many food items. Meat we purchase at a local butcher who gets his supply from farmer’s in eastern Ontario.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I say no and no to both questions.
    You need to be reasonable and practical. Try to buy fresh and unprocessed whenever possible but don’t drive yourself crazy with worry or the results of that will be worse to your health and pocketbook than any perceived advantage.

  3. Robert Hoffman says:

    Both an interesting and revealing chart: This graph lists only product creators and producers; the commercial “magicians”. The whole picture should include where their ingredients come from. Of course this is impossible. Me? Being urban, locally grown has sustenance limitations. The positive of my city presence is that of “conscious groceries”. With neither locally owned “Potsdam Coops nor Nature’s Storehouse’s,” I rely as much as realistically possible on the responsibility and transparency of Whole Foods. To address my consumption in the above “lists”…..with the exceptions of cereals, peanut butter, cheeses and tortilla chips—responsible replacements have been found. Thanks Ellen for this post!

  4. Robert Hoffman says:

    Also: Note that Walmart has made a corporate goal of providing more organic and “natural” food products. Buyers, be wary………….

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    We have a good sized garden and grow a lot of our own veggies and herbs and some grains too along with some bees and a few chickens. Still, I go to the farmers market nearly every week – year round in GF – to get a few items, great coffee ground and roasted in Bakers Mills, a few veggies I don’t grow myself, fruit, a small amount of milk, maybe some cheese, some baked goods, there is even a fish monger from Long Island not 100 miles but pretty close. I can afford it so I make a point to buy from local vendors – helping them make a living helps me in maintaining the quality of life I want in my community.
    I also get bread sometimes from Rockhill Bakehouse, this is not a political endorsement but Matt Funiciello bakes some of the best bread anywhere and he’s a great guy. Speaking of politics, this post highlights how food and agriculture is a big part of the congressional race, especially with Matt and Aaron Woolf being involved. I’m not trying to make this political but in the end what you buy and don’t buy ends up being political in one way or another.
    Anyway, I try to avoid processed foods and junk food to some extent but I do buy a few items here and there. I don’t hate giant corporations but I’d rather have my money go to the little guys.

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Soylent, UGH! We are humans not chemical reactions enclosed in a semi-porous membrane. This is the sort of thing that reinforces the disdain the French hold for the American palate. Food is not simply a means of providing calories, vitamins and minerals. That sort of mentality is what lead to American cheese (not fit to be served or even called cheese), Tang, Flintstone Vitamins, over use of antibiotics, over dependence on invasive and unnecessary medical procedures like tonsillectomies C sections and boob jobs (I can say that right?), and the proliferation of TV shows like Two and a Half Men.

  7. Paul says:

    Well we don’t all live on a farm. In fact we are becoming more and more urban. So buying expensive locally sourced food might be an option for you and me but not for most of the planet.

  8. shovel says:

    Once a month – Smuckers PB, Grape nuts and other cereals (2 boxes/month), one bag of chips, one box of crackers, 1-2 Diet Cokes, just to be perverse.
    Otherwise, bulk grains, beans, coffee, flour and canned tomatoes (Woodstock brand is delicious!) from the buying club; meat from local farmer; veggies and fruit from grocery store or grown by us. Mostly home baked breads and cookies.

    My question – how do eating properly, shopping conscientiously and being a good global citizen intertwine? How do we encourage a system that produces quality food AND brings it to as many as possible? Where does the person who picked those humongous strawberries – BYGO Free! – that I bought at the store last weekend fit into the picture?

  9. Ellen Rocco says:

    Paul: I think you zeroed in on the real dilemma being faced by farmers, agricultural thinkers/planners, sustainability organizations, and lots of thoughtful individuals. I know I’ve wrestled with this problem and discussed it with a lot of very smart people. For me, the problem is this: how do we pull the agricultural geography closer to the major population centers, particularly when so much of that geography is now suburbia or exurbia? For example, the Long Island and Hudson Valley farms that played a key role in feeding NYC are long gone, developed into commuter and second home communities. You can’t do local/regional food–at least as a major contributor to the urban diet–if there’s no local/regional land left to grow the food on. And if all the regional food is produced on small, niche farms, even if you have lots of it low and middle income people can’t afford it. These questions aren’t deeply philosophical–they’re nuts and bolts and have to be answered if we’re going to create an agriculture for the 21st century.

  10. Paul says:

    “Food is not simply a means of providing calories, vitamins and minerals.”

    Not for you and me but it is basically this for most of the planet.

  11. Paul says:

    “You can’t do local/regional food–at least as a major contributor to the urban diet–if there’s no local/regional land left to grow the food on.”

    The solution to this problem is to get our foods from distant places where there is land to grow the food and to grow it in an economically sustainable way (something we have been working on for decades). What we should focus on now is developing new ways to transport food so that it still tastes good when we get it. Places in Europe are quite good at doing this. You may have heard David Sedaris talking recently on TAL with Ira Glass about these stores in Paris that sell only frozen food. Really good frozen food.

    The idea of promoting a type of agriculture that can’t work in the long run is pretty counter productive. Don’t get me wrong locally grown foods will continue to be an option for those that can afford it but it isn’t a large scale solution and should not be treated as one.

  12. Paul says:

    It is predicted that by 2050 the worlds population will increase 35% from where it is now. It is estimated that we will need to double our agricultural production to meet this demand. It needs to be doubled because many developing countries (like here now in the US) are becoming more prosperous. These countries are going to be eating things like meat which requires more grain.

    All this needs to be done in a way that limits our impact on the environment. This cannot be accomplished by using things like organic farming that requires more land to produce food than modern conventional farming.

    You could argue that folks (like myself) that buy only locally grown grass fed beef (cause I like it) are putting some serious negative pressure on the environment. Same goes for the organic foods I often buy.

  13. Paul: You make fair points but let’s not forget that industrial agriculture and the attendant delivery systems cause its own stresses on the environment, particularly in terms of water and air pollution.

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Urban farming and gardening are being developed rapidly. Even in local communities this is being experimented with, for example Coopers Cave Ale co. in Glens Falls has a rooftop garden that supplies some of e roof needs for there pub.
    Here is a start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_agriculture

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, while many people around the world don’t get enough to eat the problem is largely poverty not lack of food, with the exception of famine caused by long drought or war. Even in the poorest cultures people want to eat food with flavor that provides nourishment. That is what the French call “cuisine,” the local characteristic culture of food. there is a local cuisine everywhere based on what is available locally that has proven through millenia to be a nutritional diet.

    One of the problems that has to be solved is the transport of food grown in poor regions to wealthier places.
    In various places in Africa wealthy western corporations have bought up good farmland in order to grow the crops that are frozen then sent to France while people only dozens or a few hundreds of miles away have difficulty feeding themselves. It does not seem like an insurmountable problem but people need to know the problem exists in order for it to be solved.

    I have been to some very poor countries and seen markets full of food even while the local people go hungry. Lots of food goes to waste everywhere, often due to simple lack of money to buy what is available. It seems to me to be a more worthy question to be answered than the idea of Soylent. I remember when people were saying we would be living in space by the 21 st Century or in houses under the sea. Let’s get real.

  16. Paul says:

    Knuck, this is all true to get these folks food we also need to get them some wealth I understand that.

    Producing food at lower costs can also address some of these issues.

    As far as production of food in poor regions the Gates funded projects on trangenic cassava and rice are great examples of how GMOs are having a positive impact in parts of the developing world. Biotechnology is going to help us solve some of these problems if the fear mongers don’t keep slowing the process down. Some people love science if it helps them make their particular argument (climate change for example) but then they question it when it doesn’t fit their political agenda (safety of GMOs for example or their dislike of industrial agriculture). Very sad.

    http://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2011/04/Nutritious-Rice-and-Cassava-Aim-to-Help-Millions-Fight-Malnutrition

  17. Jeff says:

    1. Cereals we by mostly out of state from bent and dent stores and buy whatever is healthiest and near outdating. Saves 75%. We are able to utilize a bread outlet. No alcohol here and soft drinks are not on the monthly list.

    I can think of no core items with a name brand and things like Lea & Perrins are picked up whenever they run out. Same for ketchup- with a K.

    I try to buy from the regional egg producer but they are not always in the store where I am buying at the moment. Milk from Stewarts because it is close. We don’t do farmer’s markets generally. We’ll buy strawberries in season but our patch is coming into its own along with raspberries, blueberries and sour cherries. The garden helps with vegetables. We by corn from local growers and use it fresh and freeze or can it.

    Meat? Poultry and pork when it is on sale at the grocery store. Beef from a local meat market and all in moderation.

    Overall name brands are only bought with coupons and discounts. Otherwise house brands are favored.

    I suppose a point of this exercise is if we don’t like the Walmarts of the world and want to spend money locally we should be shopping on Saturday if there is a farmer’s market open, baking one’s own bread etc. It may be more expensive and maybe we’d eat less.