Okay, I’m just going to come right out and say it… America isn’t exactly the healthiest place there is. In fact, I think it’s pretty safe to say we love our junk food here. We have, however, gotten a lot more health conscious over the years, and if you’re anything like me you probably make an effort to avoid the bad stuff and opt for something a little healthier.
To me, that doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding stuff like cookies and ice cream, but it means finding companies that use better, more natural ingredients to make their products. The closer it is to home-made, the better… which is why I make so much stuff at home! When I’m not making something from scratch, though, that usually means steering clear of the big-name brands, and looking for something made by smaller scale companies. Not only do I feel better about what I’m putting into my body, but I can feel confident that I’m supporting an independent business at the same time. Or at least, I think I am, anyway…
As it turns out, many of those l business aren’t so small or independent after all. In fact, most of them are actually owned by the big corporations I might think I’m avoiding! Brown Cow yogurt is owned by Dannon, Back To Nature is actually Kraft, and Stacy’s Pita Chips are really owned by Frito Lay… which in turn is owned by Pepsi.
Now, just because a brand is owned by a big company doesn’t make it bad, by default. Just because Odwalla is owned by Coke doesn’t mean that drinking an Odwalla is the same as drinking Coke — you’re still getting a nutrient-packed smoothie instead of a soft drink! What it does mean is, instead of supporting the brand you like, a portion of your dollars are actually going to a big, multi-billion dollar conglomerate.
I don’t know about you, but I like to know the difference between the two. I also like to know about the ethics and standards behind a company, no matter who it’s owned by… which is why I’ve put together this list.
Many of these brands actually started out as small, mom-and-pop type operations, but after very successful growth started to catch the attention of the big leagues. For some of them, selling out to a “parent company” was a means for keeping their business above water, while for others it was just the next logical step to bigger and better things. In most cases this is a win-win: the smaller business gets to keep growing, and companies like Coca Cola and Kellogg are more than happy to take on a product that their more health-conscious customers will appreciate. Plus they can sell it at a much higher premium, so it makes them money. Lots and lots of money.
These are just a few of those brands, which you maybe didn’t know were owned by big businesses. Many of them still strive to maintain their original standards, or even expand upon them, while others have faltered under the pressures of the big-name food industry. Not all of the brands on this list try to fool their buyers with the appearance of being small or independent, but I’ve included them anyway because you may be surprised to know a little more about them.
If there are any I’ve missed, please add them to the list in the comments below!
Cascadian Farms is one of the most well known names for its transition from independent company to subsidiary brand.
Muir Glen, Cascadian Farms, and LaraBar — what do these brands have in common? They’re all owned by General Mills! Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farms, served on the USDA’s board of National Organic Stanndards in the 1990’s, and helped to define the current standards of what organic is. He fought for the use of synthetics to be legal in organic foods, so that things like organic TV dinners could be made possible. In talking about how Cascadian Farms progressed from a small organic farm to an agribusiness, Kahn said, “we tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn’t successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.” (from the book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma)
Dagoba Chocolate is actually owned by Hershey’s. Dagoba was founded in 2001, and bought up by Hershey’s just five years later. The company focuses on organic and sustainable practices, and currently all of its products are “rainforest alliance certified.” This just goes to show, big companies can make healthy products… they just don’t usually choose to.
Silk Soymilk, Horizon Milk, and The Organic Cow of Vermont are all controlled by Dean Foods. Silk Soymilk came under a lot of scrutiny when, in 2009, it quietly swapped the word “organic” on its label to the word “natural.” In order to not raise prices, the company had switched from using organically grown soybeans to conventionally grown ones. They kept their prices the same, and pocketed the change. The FDA does not currently have any regulations on the use of the word “natural,” so when a product says “all natural,” it is not the same as organic.
Brown Cow and Stonyfield Farms Yogurt are both made by Dannon. Brown Cow was actually started back in the 70’s, and it wasn’t until 2003 that it got bought by Stonyfield Farms (a subsidiary of Dannon). Stonyfield Farms Yogurt is entirely organic, while Brown Cow yogurt is certified humane, and promises never to use artificial hormones in the production of their yogurt (but is not organic.)
Odwalla was founded in 1980 by three friends in Santa Cruz California, who literally started from the ground up, juicing oranges and selling the fresh juice wherever they could. The company grew quickly, and became extremely successful under its own management until 2001, when it was purchased by Coca-Cola for a whopping $181 million. Odwalla benefited greatly from this merger, and its original management was able to stay on as heads of the company. Odwalla continues to offers a range of natural juices and smoothies, and focuses on green practices like recycling.
Naked Juice was bought by Pepsico in 2007, in a bid to compete with Coca Cola’s recent purchase of Odwalla. The company began nearly 25 years earlier when founder Jimmy Rosenberg started making the drinks in his home and selling them on the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Monica. To this day the company is dedicated to using no added sugar, and no preservatives, meaning that the bottles of juice have a very limited shelf life. The company also focuses on sustainability, and has made an attempt to green itself by installing over 1,800 solar panels.
Can you feel the tension?
Kashi — okay, we all know that Kashi isn’t a small company, but did you know it’s actually owned by Kellogg? Kashi advertises itself as an all-natural, healthy alternative to other breakfast cereals and bars, but in 2011 the company stirred some serious consumer outrage when it came to light that a majority of their products (containing soy) were made with GMO’s. This made many question the brand’s “natural food philosophy.” Kashi makes no claims to be organic, and as I mentioned before, the word “natural” has no firm definition when it comes to product labeling. In an attempt to mitigate the damages, Kashi released a line of seven Non-GMO cereals. In the same year, Kellogg (Kashi’s parent company), donated nearly $800,000 to voting against the labeling of GMO’s in California. To read more about Kashi’s GMO controversy, check out this Huffington Post article.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream was founded by two friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, in 1978, in Burlington Vermont. They became known for their unusual flavors and witty wording, and in 1988 were awarded the U.S. Small Business Person’s Of The Year, by president Ronald Reagan. In 2000, the founders sold the company to Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. Although their names are still attached to the brand, Ben & Jerry no longer hold any board or management positions, and are not involved in the day-to-day management of the company. Owned by Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s has said it is in full support of mandatory GMO labeling, and has a full-disclosure policy on their website stating what percentage of their products contain them. The company hopes to be fully GMO-free by the end of 2013.
Häagen-Dazs ice cream was first created by founder Reuben Mattus in 1961. According to his daughter, Mattus chose the name by sitting at the kitchen table saying nonsensical words until he came up with something unique that he liked. Mattus said he wanted the name to sound Danish, even though the words have no actual meaning. In 1983, Häagen-Dazs was bought by Pillsbury, which was later purchased by General Mills. However, to confuse matters further, in the U.S. and Canada Häagen-Dazs products are produced by Nestle, under a license issued by General Mills. The brand is known for being one of the few commercial ice cream makers to not use any stabilizers, such as guar gum, xanthan gum, or carrageenen. The company also focuses on providing funding for research and protection programs for honey bees in the U.S., which have been decreasing in numbers dramatically over the past several years.
These Chewy Yogurt Bars contain High-Fructose Corn Syrup — be sure to look for the “No High-Fructose” label on many other Quaker products!
(For more information on the production of commercial orange juices, I suggest this post from Leaf and Grain.)
So, which ones were you surprised by? If you can think of any I’ve missed, or notice any errors, please let me know in the comments below!