In 1981, American children were introduced to the glorious bag of liquid that is Capri Sun. The German juice import challenged the mighty kiddie beverage brand Motts by selling fun. In place of a drab, angular juice box with a sedate apple logo, Capri Sun came in a gleaming aluminum pouch, featuring neon-clad windsurfers shredding waves of fruit. Both products were packed with sugar, but unlike its traditional juice-box rivals, Capri Sun came sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
Using the corn-starch-based alternative sweetener put the gnarly drink pouches on the cutting edge of a growing trend in the beverage business at that time: High-fructose corn syrup came cheaper (thanks in part to federal corn subsidies) and was easier to handle than typical cane sugar, prompting many companies — starting with Coca-Cola — to make the switch.
Today, some would argue that these short-term savings have come at a high cost. Rates of obesity and diabetes in the U.S. are soaring, and our long-standing thirst for artificially sweetened drinks gets a lot of the blame. Some evidence suggests that high-fructose corn syrup is sweeter than regular sugar, and thus more conducive to cravings. Whether it’s actually any more harmful to our health than other sugars is up for debate, but given that public sentiment toward sweet drinks is rapidly turning sour, manufacturers are now scrambling to realign their products with more-wholesome contemporary tastes.
Earlier this year, Kraft Foods Group, which distributes Capri Sun in the States, announced its plan to swap out the high-fructose corn syrup for real cane sugar. The move is just one in a recent series of big-brand and fast-food companies retooling recipes in the interest of consumer health — or, at least, in an attempt to cash in on increasingly more health-conscious consumers. Whether the changes are significant enough to have any impact on our collective coronaries remains to be seen.
Preserved and processed food has been around for millennia, but only with early 20th-century advances in food science did dinner become so heavily industrialized. Companies like Heinz and Campbell’s banded together to improve the canning process. Clarence Birdseye ushered in frozen food, and scientists quickly created a palette of dyes, additives and antibiotics for food processors to dabble with — all during a time when federal food regulation was lax, to say the least. The developments were welcome to newly prosperous postwar Americans. An age of want turned to an age of have. We wanted more food, and we got it. We wanted fast, convenient food, and we got it. But at some point, processed food went too far. What began as an understandable desire for abundant, long-lasting, easy-to-prepare sustenance resulted in things like French fries bathed in a possible carcinogen called tert-Butylhydroquinone. That’s the stuff that keeps frying oil fresh; it’s also found in varnishes, lacquers and resins.
Nowadays, the American public is swiftly losing its appetite for enduringly preserved, chemically laden foodstuffs. And corporate America, thankfully, is shifting gears as a result. Two months after Kraft announced that it would cut high-fructose corn syrup from Capri Sun, the company also announced it was streamlining the recipe to just five (pronounceable) ingredients: water, juice, citric acid, the ever-vague “natural flavor” and, of course, sugar — three fewer grams of the sweet stuff, in fact, hence the company’s claim that the new formula has 35 percent less sugar than other leading juice drinks.
Beyond Capri Sun, the list of recent factory-food makeovers goes on and on: Coke and Pepsi have each released corn-syrup-free versions of their sodas. Hershey’s is also switching sweeteners in some of its products, while Panera Bread is dropping more than 160 artificial ingredients from its menu. Find yourself at a Southern California location of McDonald’s in the coming months and you can try the chain’s new Egg White and Turkey Sausage Bowl over a bed of kale. McDonald’s also recently announced it would be working with chicken suppliers to stop the use of certain antibiotics. A month later, Tyson’s — a top supplier to the megachain and the largest chicken processor in the country — unveiled its own plan to eliminate human antibiotics from all of its chickens by late 2017.
While an increasingly health-conscious public is no doubt partially responsible for these changes, weariness of chem-lab cuisine is not new. In 1958, the federal Food Additives Amendment was enacted, requiring that additives be adequately tested before commercial use in the U.S. Alice Waters has been preaching about organics since the early 1970s. And more recently, Michael Pollan brought academic rigor to the movement with his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Chefs and restaurants with farm-to-table philosophies are now so rampant across the country that they’ve spawned a (perhaps refreshing) backlash in food-obsessed cities like Austin, Chicago and New York (witness Brooklyn’s spate of craft tater tots). But the American market for healthier food is growing fast, and it’s hard to argue that eating fresher, healthier ingredients that support local businesses and farms isn’t a good thing — if, that is, you can afford it. Now, it seems, Big Food has caught on, too.
It would be nice to think that the various corporate moves toward healthier products were made at least partially out of some sense of moral responsibility. But the primary motivation seems obvious: making money. Many of these companies admit they’re making changes due to customer demand. “Industry does what the customer wants,” says Dr. Robert Murray, a professor of nutrition at Ohio State University. “They are companies, not public-health watchdogs. The drive for natural, less-processed foods is what the consumer wants now, so industry adjusts its R&D to match.”
A possible exception — and I emphasize possible — is Chipotle. The burrito empire has been serving responsibly sourced meat and produce for years now. In 2007, the company became the first massive fast-food chain to emphasize local ingredients by sourcing pork for its Charlottesville, Virginia, branch from nearby PolyFace Farms (made famous by Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Earlier this year, Chipotle pulled carnitas from the menu at hundreds of restaurants, citing a supplier that had violated its livestock standards. Being a for-profit business, of course, the company is concerned with cash, but it’s worth noting just how much further Chipotle has gone in supporting healthy, dutifully sourced ingredients than just about any other major food chain.
“Because we have been moving in this direction for so long, our economic model has really been built in a way that allows us to invest more in the ingredients we use and still maintain healthy margins,” says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, who notes that the company has some of the highest food costs in the restaurant industry but also some of the highest profit margins. “The market is really moving in a direction that favors our way of doing things,” Arnold says. “Increasingly, the traditional fast-food model seems to be losing relevance, and many of the traditional fast-food companies are making changes to improve their menus and their offerings. While those changes fall well short of what we are doing, it certainly says something about what consumers seem to want.”
In a recent interview with Paper Magazine, chef Roy Choi — founder of L.A.’s epic fleet of Kogi Trucks — discussed his new project Loco’l, a rethinking of the typical fast-food model. Unlike Chipotle, which he sees as too haute for a large portion of the population, Choi and his business partner, San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson, hope to offer healthier, fresher food with McDonald’s-level price tags. “Right now, we have a whole society that’s been eating preservatives and processed food, that’s being brainwashed by billions of dollars of industry,” says Choi. “We can’t just say, ‘Yo, eat this kale.’” The first two Loco’l locations will open later this fall in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood and San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, both underserved inner-city locales. At the new stores, a hamburger will cost just 99 cents.
Given the staggering impact that processed and unhealthy foods — along with steadily increasing portion sizes — have had on our population’s health, perhaps corporate intention is a moot point. Consider: Among the world’s most populous countries, the U.S. has the second-highest obesity rate, coming in just behind Mexico. Among all countries, the U.S. ranks third on the list of most daily calories consumed (3,639), topped only by Turkey and Austria. Some of these trends could be due to cultural influences, but the consensus among doctors and dietitians is that the high-sugar, non-nutritious Western diet, along with the amounts we consume, is a huge contributor.
According to a 2008 study, nearly a third of American kids ages two to 11 — and almost half of all U.S. teenagers — consume fast food every day. Meanwhile, a 2013 Gallup poll suggested that almost half of all Americans eat fast food at least once a week. Buying fresh, organic, local ingredients and shaking hands with your farmer is a worthy goal, and evidence suggests that mass-scale organic farming capable of feeding the world’s growing population could one day be possible. But at the moment, farm-fresh healthy food is out of reach for millions of Americans.
Deteriorating diet isn’t just a problem in the U.S., either. “Due to their palatability, availability and relative inexpensiveness, processed foods have replaced and continue to replace traditional, usually healthier diets of cultures across the globe,” says Dr. Felice Jacka, a nutrition expert from Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. “The shift in our dietary patterns over the last few decades has resulted in a dramatic rise in chronic diseases.” Processed, unhealthy foods are also linked with impaired mental health. A Spanish study from 2012 found that people who frequently eat fast food have a 40 percent higher risk for depression. Other research has found that consuming fried foods, sugary foods and refined grains — in other words, a Western diet — increases the risk of both depression and anxiety.
Supporting local farms and serving primarily unprocessed foods à la Chipotle is clear progress in fast food. Cutting serving sizes as Capri Sun and Coke have done also has the obvious benefit of simply encouraging consumers to consume less. But will removing dyes and swapping sweeteners have any benefit on societal health? Though some data suggests that high-fructose corn syrup may cause more health problems than other sugars, many medical experts disagree because unprocessed sugars — sucrose or table sugar included — result in the same assault on our pancreas and metabolism. In other words, “fructose-free” doesn’t mean risk-free. “It’s still sugar water,” says Dr. Margaret Powers, president-elect of health care and education at the American Diabetes Association.
Food dyes might be a different story. Certain artificially produced coloring agents have been linked to cancer, ADHD, asthma and behavioral changes in children (hence Kraft’s decision to drop yellow 5 and yellow 6 from its popular macaroni and cheese). And perhaps the most impactful shift in food processing in the long term will be doing away with the use of human antibiotics in farming. The majority of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in livestock, a practice that is contributing to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If the problem continues to worsen, there could be terrible consequences for the fight against human infection as our cabal of effective antibiotics dwindles.
Still, the medical community seems generally encouraged by these snowballing signs of reform in the processed-food sector, and the hope is that this momentum will help spur further progress, both on the part of the private sector and government, as well. “This is a positive movement,” says Dr. Powers. “I think it would be best to offer healthy foods in a variety of places and restaurant types. This, along with government subsidies of healthy ingredients, could improve health and save health-care dollars in the long run.”
The idea that federal money could help improve the American diet is ironic when you consider that the initial move toward high-fructose corn syrup was in part a result of government corn subsidies. Corn, by the way, is still the most subsidized crop in the U.S.
Bret Stetka is an editorial director at Medscape (a subsidiary of WebMD) and a freelance health, science and food writer. He received his medical degree in 2005 from the University of Virginia and regularly writes for Wired and Scientific American.