Food processing business practices

16 min read

Introduction

The premier adverts for food processing, fast food, and soft drinks industries are enormous enterprises. 3% of all beverages consumed in the world are coca cola products. McDonald’s accounts for 7% of the US’s total potato production, contributing to a fast-food industry that is currently worth more than 750 billion dollars in the US and estimated to appreciate to almost 1 trillion by 2027. [1] The growth of the processed and ultra-processed food industry, which powers these enterprises, has accelerated since the 1970s and has come to define the western world’s cuisine culture.

A McDonald’s restaurant in Florida.

Besides fast food and beverages, Americans have become ever more dependent on processed foods and processed culinary ingredients. There are many reasons for this, among them urbanization and globalization – food can make its way around the world in a good state, and fewer people than ever are employed in food production. [2]

Wrong labeling in food processing misleads consumers and influences consumption

Consumers are increasingly sensitive to food that they feel may not be healthy, or contains substances that they perceive to be unhealthy. [3] GMOs have particularly been on the receiving end. This class of food has been the victim of negative media coverage, despite the scientific evidence available so far saying that they are safe. It is however reasonable to believe GMOs could pose a threat, and consequently, take steps to avoid them. [4] Food processors know this and need to make sales to the same consumers. They, therefore, come up with labels, purporting to show food as “healthy”, “organic”, or “GMO-free”.

In countries where particular classes of pesticides are still used, despite their well-established harmful effects on humans, animals, and the environment, it is important to point out when food has been produced organically – free of artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and any other agrochemicals. [5] Many countries, such as those in the EU, inspect the standards in source countries and decide whether the standards are equivalent to the EU’s definition of “organic”, or whether independent bodies in the receiving countries need to carry out rigorous vigilance to determine the organic nature of the imported food. In all these instances, food that is not organic could pass through the cracks, and be certified as organic. [6]

Examples of often misleading food labels.

The second aspect of wrong labeling is seen when processed food lists ingredients that only trace levels (such as a label implying the food has been made from full grains, while only a small amount has been used). It may also happen when, instead of correctly quoting the artificial sweetener used, instead say, “flavoring”, and “color”, instead of the actual chemical used to get the color. Processed foods also include many chemicals, which have been discussed above, but are just listed as stabilizers, emulsifiers, and nature-identical flavors.

In yet other instances, food labels lead consumers to believe that they are eating one portion, when in fact, this is not the case. In the last 45 years, food portions for Americans have grown ever larger. [7] A serving of soda, for instance, has gone six times, from 7oz to 42oz, while the size of a burger has tripled in the same period. While telling people that the food amount is the same, Americans’ calorie intake has sharply risen, since more than ever before, we are eating more processed food. The result has been the growth in the revenues of fast food and processed food industries, ballooning weight, and more health issues associated with the intake of processed foods, and obesity.

the traffic light labeling system, which was rejected by MEPs.

Research has established that correct labeling can help consumers make healthier decisions when purchasing snacks. Correct labeling will usually see products having unwanted substances being shunned. It seems, however, that processors are not ready for sales suppressed by the unwanted additives or processing methods of their products. Some common misleading labels that prevent consumers from making sound decisions include “no sugar” labels. [8] Such foods usually have maltodextrin, a type of glucose that would have the same effect on a diabetic person as ordinary sugar. Other labels imply that because the product has no added sugar, has no trans-fat, is “lite”, and is gluten-free, it is automatically healthier to eat, since it may have lower calories, unhealthy substances, or fats. [9] The facts, however, suggest otherwise, with such foods having a lot of sugar, fats, and other things that the consumer is aiming to avoid in the first place.

Psychological strategies in food processing

Fast food and processed food marketers know the influence of color on customer preferences. For instance, yellow makes consumers feel hungrier and impulsive. [10] The appearance of meat in a retail store will be done to make the food as appealing as possible, exuding freshness and great taste. Health implications and the taste of food are the two most important considerations that consumers weigh as they make the purchasing decision. According to some industry commentators, McDonald’s red and yellow color combination plays a significant role in showing the fast food chain as a homey, attractive place.

The same strategy is used by food processors when packaging their food. Using sulfites gives meat and fruits an attractive fresh color that induces consumers to buy, feeling that they are purchasing a superior product. [11] The packaging, in conjunction with the labeling, is designed to show the high quality of the food and pass off information that may not always be accurate.

the interior of a Chick-a-fil-A restaurant has vivid colors and homey touch.

Fast food chains play fast, loud music at their restaurants. [12] While this may seem to be an honest attempt to improve the mood and entertain the eaters, the reasoning behind the music has other agendas to take care of. The music is designed to distract eaters, and at the same time, elicit some reactions from them. Loud, fast music prompts people to eat more, and faster. The music also distracts the eaters, such that they momentarily forget that they are full. The restaurant can then take advantage of this by serving larger portions. The reason for serving larger portions and the results of this strategy will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

Fast food chains also have a limited number of choices for the food that you can eat, or drinks that they can serve. [13] While this also has some economic considerations influencing it, the little choice also plays on the consumer’s psychology. A choice limited to chicken, fries, burgers, and soda will be easy to navigate. A customer is more likely to make a substantive decision (buy a meal), as opposed to an extensive list of available food that confuses the customer, and in some cases, prevents them from buying.

One page of a menu booklet of Shanghai Manor Chinese restaurant, New York.
Subway’s menu, which is easy to display over the counter, with vibrant images to show you what the words mean.

Limited-time offers trick consumers into feeling that if they do not take advantage of the offer right away, they may lose out. [14] This sees people rushing to buy more food than they need, and consequently, consume more food than is appropriate, or what they would normally do. Fast food chains and food processors use this strategy to reach a wider audience, generate more sales, and generate more publicity that will likely result in sales in the future.

Fast food chains and food processors have long understood the centrality of fat, sugar, and salt in the human diet. Humans are wired to need these three ingredients in their food. Businesses have found ways of making these foods have ample – mostly unhealthy- amounts of these three ingredients. Additionally, the foods are made hyper-palatable. [15] Hyper-palatable means that the person does not know when they are full, until when they have taken enormous portions of the food. Chips, which are loaded with fat, salt, and sugar, are extremely popular, as seen in our introduction about McDonald’s share of the national potato produce. They are also very unhealthy, contributing immensely to the obesity epidemic. It is no longer overeating. It is now hyper heating, with handsome profits for businesses, and disastrous effects on public health.

A combination of conditioned hyper-eating, carefully choreographed by the big food industry, use of additives to make food over palatable, limited-time offers, and limited menu items have all conspired to make it easier for restaurants to serve oversized portions. Previously, people would gain weight between their 20s and 40s and lose the weight as the years wore on. Today, people are gaining weight on average, throughout their lives. For the first time, childhood obesity is a major health concern, fueled by people taking larger food portions than their bodies need, from so early in their lives. The food is also attractively priced, meaning that all economic groups can easily access these processed products, and therefore, become obese.

Additives to save cost and induce consumption

Trans-fats are also called hydrogenated fats and are produced artificially through the addition of hydrogen in normal vegetable oil. Hydrogenated fats are considered the worst sort of fat to eat, since they increase bad cholesterol, and decrease good cholesterol. [16] But food processors routinely use them to preserve foods, and further, post misleading labels on the products as containing no cholesterol. Monosodium glutamate, which has been established to be a neurotoxin, is routinely added to ultra-processed food and fast food to make the food palatable and fuel the conditioned hyper-eating phenomenon discussed above.

     In the past, fast food chains would use tallow and lard to fry chips and chicken. Then, these types of fats were easier to obtain than vegetable oil. It was however seen as being unhealthy for containing a high proportion of saturated fats. [17] When vegetable oil became easier to obtain, many restaurants switched, but still needed to retain the flavor that tallow gives the food cooked in it. Additionally, the oil used is partially hydrogenated, resulting in products that have as high, if not higher, amounts of the saturated fats that consumers wanted to avoid, and less flavor and nutrients. Artificial spices are then added to make up for the lost flavor.

     Artificial sugars are cheaper for food processors than normal sugar. [18] They can also allow processors to label their foods as sugar-free, while the food is as sweet. These sugars have been reported to have fewer calories, and are sweeter, cheaper, and easier to produce. However, mounting evidence shows that these sugars are associated with a wide array of lifestyle diseases, including diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, and hormone-related cancers – even though these sweeteners purport to help consumers escape these very diseases.

MSG crystals.

Government lobbying and subsidies in food processing

It would be surprising that people have been eating products that are so far removed from their whole food origins, with so many questionable additives, and pushed down their throats by less-than-ethical business practices. The government has various regulations enforced by the USDA and related agencies. These regulations specify which chemicals are safe, and which are not. None of the substances described here are illegal to use. [19] The simple reason for this, plus the other negative practices we see today, is the result of “Big Food” lobbyists who work to shape government policy and defeat any adverse regulations.

Pres. Trump signs the Farm Bill into law, to the applause of corporate farms and food processors.

Lobbying the government to pass favorable legislation is not illegal. It ensures that whatever laws are passed are friendly to the interests of the lobby group. In some cases, the interests of an industry may go against the public interest. In 2010, the European Parliament voted against a law that would have required food processors to label food using the traffic light analogy – green for food considered by experts to be healthy, and red for options with too much sugar, fat, or salt. [20] Instead, processed food typically has a pie chart or list that shows the different elements within a gram of food – energy, calories, fats, and sugar, among others. In the aftermath of the rejection of this proposal, it emerged that the Confederation of food and drink industries in the EU spent close to 1 billion Euros to lobby MEPs to reject it.

In the US, a particular faction of politicians believes that regulations are bad for business, especially when they are enforced by the government. Such politicians have become the beneficiaries of campaign funds from political action committees (PACs) associated with the food industry. In 2014, these PACs gave more than 6 million dollars to House and Senate members to influence food-related regulations. In the same year, the PACs spent more than 34 million dollars to lobby the federal government on various regulations aimed at controlling the nature of additives in processed foods.

Recent surveys show that people no longer trust that the government will do a good job of holding the industry to account for unethical practices. A report by the International Food Information Council shows that generally, consumers try to avoid additives that they consider unhealthy, despite official communication to the contrary. [21] The most unpopular substances are preservatives, flavors (especially MSG), colors, and added sugars. They are usually successful if the processor has clearly labeled the package, and less so when the label is misleading.

Subsidies are another government intervention that has negative effects on human health and is, in many cases, a product of industry lobbying. It is difficult, even simplistic, to assume that food subsidies directly result in obesity and a generally unhealthy population. However, most of the foods that the government subsidizes are the original whole foods that are then processed extensively to produce processed and ultra-processed foods. The US government extensively subsidizes sugar, wheat, potato, and corn production. The primary reasoning behind the subsidies is to guarantee production and, therefore, ensure food security.

In 2018, the US Congress passed the famous Farm Bill, worth 867 billion dollars. A big part of the money was for subsidies, many of which were decried by some legislators as specifically benefitting highly profitable farms, sometimes, at the expense of smaller farmers. Companies such as Pepsi, whose products can hardly be considered food, were among more than 500 lobbyists who were interested in passing the bill in this form, with commentators arguing that the final version had the fingerprints of political lobbying all over it.

Conclusion

It is easy to conclude that food processors and fast food chains deliberately put unhealthy additives in food, and cook and prepare food improperly to seek profit, regardless of the downside. This is mostly true. The many examples are given in this paper point to a highly indifferent industry that produces food purely for profit. It is assisted in this by a complicit government, which facilitates the production and proliferation of such food using taxpayers’ money – who are then harmed by the food. This is not the whole picture, though. Many people and businesses have an interest in the way food is grown, prepared, and consumed. These groups may sometimes push the boundary to have the industry and government accommodate their views. In all instances, though, it is clear that science is a primary player in determining whether some additives can be used, and in what form.

It should also be pointed out that without excessive use, many of the additives are pretty harmless. A growing trend among Americans to shun food, and the actions of many interest groups to dissuade people from eating unhealthy food choices may yet do the trick. However, it will be difficult to ensure healthy food and a health-conscious industry in light of the current profit-led atmosphere.

References

Ahima, Rexford S. ” “The end of overeating: Taking control of the insatiable American appetite.” The Journal of Clinical Investigation 119.10 (2009): 2867.

Bauer, K., Yang, Y., Austin, B. ““How Can We Stay Healthy when you’re Throwing All of this in Front of Us?” Findings from Focus Groups and Interviews in Middle Schools on Environmental Influences on Nutrition and Physical Activity.” Sage Journals 31.1 (2004).

Berry, Helen L. “Enabling a youth- and mental health-sensitive greener post-pandemic recovery.” World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) 20.2 (2021): 152-153.

Bricas, N. Urbanization Issues Affecting Food System Sustainability. Springer, 2019.

D’Amore T, Di Taranto A, Berardi G, Vita V, Marchesani G, Chiaravalle AE, Iammarino M. “Sulfites in meat: Occurrence, activity, toxicity, regulation, and detection. A comprehensive review.” Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 19.5 (2020): 2701-2720.

Gostin, Lawrence O. “”Big Food” Is Making America Sick .” The Milbank Quarterly 94.3 (2016): 480-484.

Jandacek, R. “Linoleic Acid: A Nutritional Quandary.” .” Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland) 5.2 (2017): 25.

K. Hesketh, E. Waters, J. Green, L. Salmon, J. Williams. “Healthy eating, activity and obesity prevention: a qualitative study of parent and child perceptions in Australia.” Health Promotion International 20.1 (2005): 19-26.

Kendig, Michael D., et al. “Maltodextrin can produce similar metabolic and cognitive effects to those of sucrose in the rat.”Appetite 77 (2017): 1-12.

Kumar, Vijay, et al. “A review on sample preparation and chromatographic determination of acephate and methamidophos in different samples.” Arabian Journal of Chemistry 8.5 (2015): 624-631. <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878535214003578>.

Lusk, Jayson L. “Consumer beliefs about healthy foods and diets.” PLoS One 14.10 (2019): e0223098.

McFadden, Brandon R., and Jayson L. Lusk. “The FASEB Journal.” What consumers don’t know about genetically modified food, and how that affects beliefs 30.9 (2016): 3091-3096.

Medini, Khaled, and Xavier Boucher. ” Decision-making support to steer offering variety during production planning.” Procedia CIRP 30 (2015): 486-491.

NBC News. McDonald’s the holy grail for potato farmers. 2009. <https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna32983108>.

Nesaretnam, M., et al. “The effect of vitamin e tocotrienols from palm oil on chemically-induced mammary carcinogenesis in female rats.” Nutrition Research 12.1 (1992): 63-75.

North, Adrian C., David J. Hargreaves, and Amanda E. Krause. “Music and consumer behaviour.” Oxford handbook of music psychology. 2009. 481-490.

Pourmohammadi, Kiana, et al. ” “Evaluation of Dough Rheology and Quality of Sugar-Free Biscuits: Isomalt, Maltodextrin, and Stevia.” Carpathian Journal of Food Science & Technology 9.4 (2017).

Rook, D., Hoch, S. “Consuming impulses.” Advances in Consumer Research 12 (1985): 23-27.

Sanz, Y. ” “Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy adult humans.” Gut Microbes 1.3 (2010): 135-137.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Stachniuk, Anna, and Emilia Fornal. “Liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry in the analysis of pesticide residues in food.” Food Analytical Methods 9.6 (2016): 1654-1665.

Young, Lisa R, and Marion Nestle. ” The contribution of expanding portion sizes to the US obesity epidemic.” American journal of public health 92.2 (n.d.): 246-249. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447051/>.


  1. In 2009, McDonald’s consumed 1.5 million tons of annual production, a figure that has gone up since. This gives the fast food giant the power to determine which potato brands do better than others, based on what it favors, as well as the power to set prices, and influence farming practices across the country.
  2. Besides fast food and beverages, Americans have become ever more dependent on processed foods and processed culinary ingredients. There are many reasons for this, among them urbanization and globalization – food can make its way around the world in a good state, and fewer people than ever are employed in food production. ((More critical are the business practices of food processors, soft beverages, and fast food chains. This industry has set out to increase consumption, using several strategies that are discussed in detail in this paper. The role of government interventions – in terms of regulation and subsidies – is also discussed.
  3. Increased awareness about healthy eating is a product of media campaigns, and some government initiatives. However, the gulf between being aware of the various health effects of processed food and fast food, and actually avoiding such foods is as big as ever, helped by the difficulty and unaffordability of a healthy diet.
  4. Only 37% of Americans believe that GMOs are safe to eat. However, 88% of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that these foods are safe to eat. This difference between public perception and scientific evidence demonstrates the failure of science to communicate scientific viewpoints more effectively.
  5. Acephate is a commonly used chemical around the world. It is used to control aphids, and plants on which the pesticide has been administered can be consumed after 10-15 days when the chemical has worn off. However, exposure can cause an overstimulation of the nervous system. In extreme cases, it can cause respiratory failure, paralysis, and even death.
  6. For instance, the EU has stringent conditions to protect consumers against pesticide-contaminated foods. They implement the standards by sampling all foods coming from specific countries that they have established need to be controlled. Sampling means, theoretically, that unsampled food could still find its way to the consumers, and potentially affect their health.
  7. Food portions have been growing since the 1970s, but they accelerated in the 80s. Today, the increase continues unabated, fueling the increasingly dire obesity crisis. Food portions significantly exceed federal standards and recommendations. Researchers believe a reduction in portion sizes, coupled with education to show why we should consume less, would be important in combating obesity and associated diseases.
  8. Sugar-free foods such as biscuits have maltodextrin as an alternative sweetener. The sweetener has been shown to produce similar metabolic and cognitive effects to sucrose in rats.
  9. Gluten-free foods have been a fad among the younger generation for a while. Research shows that the gluten free-food helps reduce good bacteria, and leads to the proliferation of unhealthy bacteria. The foods are also suspected to reduce the body’s immunity.
  10. Impulse buying is strongly associated with color, a fact that has been known to marketing psychologists for decades. A 1985 study identified brighter colors as a key ingredient in pushing customers to buy, besides other factors such as display, companion items, and special premiums, all of which are extensively used by the fast-food and food processing industries.
  11. In many cases, the use of sulfites to maintain the color in processed meat is frowned upon, severely restricted, or outright illegal. This has not stopped processors from treating meat with sulfites to entice consumers, who are usually oblivious to the health implications of sustained exposure to the chemicals.
  12. When customers are exposed to fast, loud music, they make their purchases faster and consume whatever they have bought faster. Their perceptions of taste, time, and even smell are disrupted. While research has found that playing slower music leads to more spending, as customers contemplate their choices, it has also established that in the fast food scenario, faster eating also results in more money spent, due to the speed and portions consumed.
  13. Marketers believe that too many choices confuse customers. Confused customers are unlikely to buy anything. To prevent this, fast food chains limit the menu, allowing customers to make quick, straightforward choices. They also pair food items to make the purchasing decision even faster, and easier.
  14. A research article has suggested that limited-time offers that are offered by fast-food restaurants are to blame for people eating too much, and consequently, growing overweight. The article further calls for government policy to limit this marketing gimmick, which, while ostensibly implying that food is cheap, results in minimal savings, more profits, and an unhealthier populace. It has also been suggested that limited time for lunch drives people to fast food restaurants, where they can be served quickly, eat quickly, and get back to work.
  15. According to David Kessler, hyper-eating is fueled by hyper-palatable food dense in fat, sugar, and salt, which leads to an over-stimulation of the neurons responsible for conscious control of eating. Since people usually eat out of habit, rather than the physical need to eat, these foods target dopamine and develop in consumers what he refers to as conditioned hyper-eating.
  16. Bad cholesterol builds up on the walls of your blood vessels. The narrowing blood vessels constrain blood flow and may lead to chest pains (angina), or even a heart attack. Good cholesterol removes other types of cholesterol from the body and deposits it in the liver, where it is then eliminated from the body.
  17. Tallow contains linoleic acid, which has been cited as an important element in the reduction of bad cholesterol in the blood. However, the optimal levels to use are still debatable, with the acid also being cited for carcinogenic tendencies. Palm oil with vitamin E has significant anti-tumorigenic properties. However, further refined oil, stripped of the vitamin, promotes tumor growth, at least from studies carried out on rats.
  18. Artificial sugars are favored because they are cheaper to produce, and contribute fewer calories to consumers. They have a host of associated health implications, including heart illnesses, and some cancers.
  19. Amid an obesity epidemic, with the CDC describing more than 37% of Americans as clinically obese, Big Food PACs have adopted aggressive marketing and political strategies to defend their turf. In addition to the money they spend on politicians, a research article published by the NLM claims that USDA has been captured by these companies that influence the policy and regulatory stance of the government.
  20. Similar tactics have been employed elsewhere, with an Australian politician coming under fire for blocking similar policies after successful lobbying.
  21. Consumers generally avoid food deemed unhealthy. However, there is scant quality information and an overload of inaccurate information that makes it difficult for consumers to make the right decision on what is healthy and what is not.
Author
Mbau Tim