Transparency is the Future of Food

Recently, a reporter asked me what I thought would be the next big trend in food. I thought about it for a few minutes and replied, “Transparency. Healthy and healthier options, natural, organic, even Non-GMO are not enough anymore. People want transparency.”

The day prior to this, the FDA had dropped a bombshell on America — as they have many when it comes to food — and approved the first genetically modified animal fit for human consumption: salmon that would grow twice as big and fast as their non-GMO counterparts. And the real kicker? They would not require these “Frankenfish” to be labeled any differently. People were (still are) outraged. The Non-GMO crowds were in a tizzy. Although funny enough, a little more Googling and it appears as though this was actually approved three years ago by the FDA, with a slightly smaller reaction. The point is, that in 2015, people (press included) have become increasingly sensitive to the adulteration that has hit the food chain and are demanding action and answers where even three years ago, things slipped by.

There is little doubt that trust is being lost in government agencies. And this is especially the case when it comes to food. If you’re still not convinced that there are questionable things happening (and have happened), read Robyn O’Brien’s 2009 book, The Unhealthy Truth. Eye opener. Or, in case you missed the story of the summer, catch up on how the American Egg Board (a government-controlled agency) tried to take down one of the leading companies in the innovative food space. And no longer is the government a reliable source when it comes to diet advice. They’re changing their recommendation for the 8th time by the end of the year.

Even some of the agencies created to bring transparency have come under fire recently. The Non-GMO Project, primarily, has been accused by multiple outlets of fear mongering and over-labeling as a marketing ploy. And frankly, it seems in some cases to be accurate. If the point of the agency is to make it clear which food products are Non-GMO to prevent you from buying ones that are GMO…why would they label salt that cannot be genetically modified? Or label other products where a GM version doesn’t even exist? … $$$???

Folks have also become more educated about where their food is coming from and what has gone into it. Example: I recently went out to dinner with a large group of people to a local Italian restaurant in Marina Del Rey, CA. A woman in the group ordered a salad and started to order grilled shrimp on it and paused. “Where are the shrimp from?” she asked the waiter. He didn’t know and she opted for grilled chicken instead. Who knows if that was a safer bet or not, but a few years ago, unlikely this question would have arisen. Consumers have become increasingly aware about a lot of the (for lack of a better description) nasty shit that is done to not just the obvious offenders, but seemingly healthy options, too.

Consumers are getting more inquisitive and the brands that survive will be those who answer the changing demands. Offering alternative milk isn’t good enough any more, as Starbucks found out when it began serving a cheap version of coconut milk. People want a shorter ingredient list, less “under researched additives” (e.g. carrageenan), and are willing to pay more to get them. (e.g. Blue Bottle, who uses the 3 ingredient brand “MYLK” almond milk.)

Fast casual has taken off, but even Chipotle, who was for years the leader in that space, is beginning to suffer. After being slammed with multiple food safety issues the past couple of years, other chains that put a focus on local sourcing and transparency, like the rapidly growing company, Sweetgreen, are giving the old favorite a run for its money.

The future of food is still uncertain. We have created a mess that entrepreneurs all over the planet are now furiously trying to undo. And it’s an exciting time to be in food, but consumers will ultimately be the ones to dictate the direction that future goes. But if you ask me, it is headed more and more away from labs and ever increasingly towards transparency.