We hear a lot about “Big Food” companies. We hear about preservatives, additives, GMOs, and ingredient sourcing. We hear about recalls. We hear about nutrition. We hear about flavor trends here and there. We hear some news, and a lot of opinion. Most of what we hear about Big Food is negative. What are the facts about big food companies?
Here are three things you should know about Big Food:
- Big Food follows the rules. A good example: many food products have what’s called a “standard of identity.” A standard of identity lists what a food product must contain (and what it cannot contain) for the food to be labeled with a certain name. These standards are regulated by the federal government and are outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and apply to all food companies. Why should we care about a standard of identity? A standard of identity benefits consumers! With a standard of identity, the consumer can be confident that a product meets a particular set of requirements no matter who makes it, or where it’s sold. There are many other “rules” in the food industry. There are grading requirements, substantiation requirements for labeling claims, requirements for nutrition panel and ingredient declarations, and many more.
An example of a standard of identity: in order to be labeled “ketchup,” our favorite French fry dip must contain certain ingredients (and not others), must maintain a specific consistency, etc. If an intended “ketchup” does not meet these requirements, it is not legal for it to be labeled KETCHUP (or catsup, or catchup…also outlined in the regs).
- Big Food tests, tests, and tests some more. Before a food product gets to your grocery store, it has been tested for safety, quality, stability, and consumer acceptance (just to name a few).
Tests that might be conducted in the research & development phase include: micro (to identify susceptibility to different spoilage or pathogenic microorganisms), pH, Salt, Titratable Acidity, viscosity/consistency, Fat, Moisture, Texture, Color, accelerated shelf life studies, and sensory panels (where trained or untrained panelists provide feedback about a product). During the development phase, testing is typically carried out by a product developer. After a product is successfully developed in the lab, it is tested at the manufacturing plant in what is commonly termed a “test run.” This is a trial production run to see how efficiently the product can “scale up,” or work in large scale production. All aspects of the product are tested during this time – appearance, taste, quality, safety, stability, compatibility with production equipment, etc. After the product is approved from the test run, it goes into production. (Some products don’t make it this far.) Some tests that might be done during the production phase: pH, salt, titratable acidity, viscosity/consistency, fat, moisture, texture, color, shelf life studies (done using production samples), and various micro tests. During the production phase, testing is typically carried out by the company’s quality department. After a product has been on the market, Big Food still tests their products to ensure quality standards are met. Shelf life and quality studies can be tested ongoing.
- Big Food pays attention to ingredient source and quality of ingredients. High-quality food products require high-quality ingredients! Every ingredient used by Big Food has a specification on file which lists the quality parameters of that ingredient. These specifications might include what an ingredient looks like (shape, size, color, etc), the consistency or texture, how it tastes, if there are any acceptable imperfections, the micro load, the source of the ingredient, and more. These specifications ensure that Big Food is getting the same high-quality ingredient with every shipment. Why does this matter? Because consistency and quality are important to consumers like us!