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12 Natural and Organic Brands Owned By Big Food

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A significant (and growing) number of shoppers have spurned traditional food and drink brands in favor of “better” choices. Instead of Tropicana and Tostitos, they’re reaching for Naked Juice and Garden of Eatin’ all-natural chips. Instead of Ball Park franks, they’re opting for Applegate Farms nitrite- and nitrate-free hot dogs. These alternatives cost more but people are willing to pay, in large part because they see these brands as being smaller, healthier, more responsible choices.

What many don’t realize, though, is that a lot of these “niche” companies are owned and operated by the very corporations many shoppers are trying to avoid. Healthy, environmentally aware brands have seen huge sales growth in recent years, and big names like Coca-Cola, General Mills and Perdue all want a piece of the action. Their ownership of once-independent brands isn’t a secret—but it isn't actively promoted either.

The natural question, of course, is whether or not this actually matters. Is the integrity of a smaller brand really compromised when it is bought by a big company? On the one hand, a Coca-Cola or a Campbell’s can increase the availability of natural and organic options. On the other hand, as experts like Philip Howard at Michigan State University have noted, big companies tend to tinker with formulas to make them easier to mass-produce. And then there’s the issue of a parent company reflecting negatively on its subsidiaries, as when General Mills, Kellogg’s and others funded opposition efforts to California’s GMO labeling proposition at the same time that some of their “natural” brands were promoting the non-use of GM ingredients.

As we ponder the answer to this and other related questions (such as: why doesn’t the “natural” label mean anything?), here are some natural and organic brands that have gone big in recent years.

1. ANNIE’S HOMEGROWN

The brand best known for boxes of mac and cheese with the cute little bunny on them sold to General Mills for $820 million in 2014. Since then, Annie’s has branched out into additional product categories, including cereal, which it had struggled to develop as an independent entity. John Foraker, founder and president of Annie’s, says the company hasn’t had to compromise its values or ingredients under the new ownership. But consumers, and even some employees, are skeptical.

2. HONEST TEA

Founded in 1997 by a Yale business school grad and one of his professors, Honest Tea has surged over the past several years to become one of the leading bottled tea companies in America. That’s due in large part to a big investment from soda giant Coca-Cola. In 2008, the company bought a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea, and then completed the acquisition three years later. The sale brought some accusations of “greenwashing,” but Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman has adamantly fought the idea that “big” equals “bad” in the organic world.

3. APPLEGATE FARMS

Last summer, the natural and organic meat company—makers of preservative- and antibiotic-free deli meats, hot dogs and sausages—sold to Hormel, maker of that most unnatural of meat products: Spam. The $775 million deal incensed some customers, who regularly take to the company’s Facebook page to vent their frustrations. In response, Applegate says it operates independent from Hormel, and that its acquisition came with safeguards to maintain its focus on clean ingredients and animal welfare.

4. NAKED JUICE

In 2006, the fruit juice company known for catchy flavors like “Blue Machine” and “Mighty Mango” sold to PepsiCo for a reported $450 million price tag. Pepsi filed the acquisition under its “better-for-you” brand portfolio, but recent years have seen Naked Juice come under fire for its high sugar content and “natural” labeling. In 2013, Pepsi settled a class action lawsuit brought by consumers who contested the label’s “100% Juice” and “All Natural” claims, among others. Pepsi paid out $9 million and agreed to stop printing “All Natural” on its Naked Juice bottles.

5. KASHI

The Kellogg Company bought this pioneering natural foods brand back in 2000, well before these sorts of acquisitions were trendy. The payoff came through several years of sustained growth as Kashi rode the wave of demand for natural and organic products. But Kellogg’s faltered as competition increased, and in 2012 Kashi faced major criticism over what consumers saw as its abuse of the “natural” label. Follow that with Kellogg’s financial contributions to defeat California’s mandatory GMO-labeling law—and this after Kashi promised to remove GMOs from its products—and the company has found itself backpedaling of late.

6. FOOD SHOULD TASTE GOOD

Founded in 2006, the plainly named snack company hit a sweet spot with uniquely flavored chips like olive, sweet potato and chocolate. This success didn’t go unnoticed by General Mills, who bought FSTG in 2012. Since then, General Mills has increased its distribution to major supermarkets, club and convenience stores. Along with brands like Larabar and Cascadian Farm (yep, they’re in there too), General Mills projects its “better for you brands” could top $1 billion in sales by 2020.

7. EARTHBOUND FARMS

The country’s largest grower of organic greens began as a 2.5-acre raspberry farm in Carmel, Calif. Since then, it has grown to include more than 50,000 acres and become what food-ag guru Michael Pollan called “industrial organic farming at its best.” Two years ago, Earthbound sold to WhiteWave Foods, formerly a subsidiary of dairy giant Dean Foods, for $600 million. The acquisition brings expansion opportunities, but organic advocacy groups are worried about WhiteWave’s integrity under CEO Gregg Engles, who oversaw Dean Foods during sourcing controversies involving its Horizon and Silk brands.

8. BEAR NAKED

Two high school friends from Connecticut built up this granola company the old-fashioned way: through local sales and word-of-mouth. In 2007, Kellogg’s-owned Kashi bought them out for a cool $60 million. In the ensuing years, the brand has expanded to include energy bars, snack bars and trail mixes.

9. STONYFIELD FARM

In 2001, France’s Group Danone (now known as Danone), whose brands include Dannon and Evian, bought a 40 percent stake in organic yogurt company Stonyfield, and completed the acquisition two years later. Stonyfield founder and CEO Gary Hirshberg had actively sought an investor, and the buyout came with demands that his company stay independent. In the ensuing years Stonyfield, now the country’s leading organic yogurt company, has gotten some flack for its sugar content, but Hirshberg has remained a very public advocate of the company’s “big with a purpose” ethos.

10. BOLTHOUSE FARMS

Started in 1915 as a commercial farm in western Michigan, Bolthouse grew to prominence selling fresh carrots, including a ready-to-eat packaged variety that became incredibly popular in the ‘90s. In 2005, private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners bought Bolthouse, then in 2012 sold the company to the Campbell Soup Company for $1.55 billion. Over the past few years, Bolthouse has expanded its lineup of fruit beverages and moved into categories like salad dressing.

11. COLEMAN NATURAL

The nation’s largest producer of organic chicken sold to Perdue back in 2011. This raised some eyebrows in industry and advocacy circles, especially considering Perdue’s checkered past with animal welfare. But Perdue, along with its main competitor, Tyson, has seen growing demand for natural, humanely raised meat. Last year, both companies agreed to severely limit or cut out the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on chickens. Perdue also purchased Niman Ranch, which has strict standards for animal welfare. Advocacy groups are keeping a close watch, meanwhile, and caution that the organic standard, despite its high price, is the only true, federally regulated guarantee for “better” meat.

12. GREEN & BLACK’S

In 2005, the organic chocolate company sold to UK-based Cadbury. Five years later, Cadbury was bought by Kraft, which then funneled many of its global snack brands, including Green & Black’s, into a spin-off company it called Mondelez. Confused yet? Welcome to the global packaged foods economy. In the U.S., Mondelez is best known for brands like Triscuit, Chips Ahoy!, Tang and Sour Patch Kids—all of which may seem at odds with the gourmet, ethical-sourcing image Green & Black’s has cultivated. Mondelez seems to realize this, too, and doesn’t even list the chocolate company under its portfolio of brands. The company’s founder, meanwhile, wishes he’d never sold Green & Black’s in the first place.

For a full look at who owns who in the natural and organic food industry, check out this graphic from Philip Howard of Michigan State University.

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The Popcorn Company That's Creating Jobs for Adults With Autism
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A New Jersey-based gourmet popcorn company is dedicating its profits to creating new employment “popportunities” for adults on the autism spectrum, A Plus reports.

Popcorn for the People, founded by Rutgers University professor Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier and her husband, radiologist Dr. Steven Bier, is a nonprofit subsidiary of the couple's charitable organization Let’s Work For Good, which focuses on "creating meaningful and lasting employment for adults with autism and developmental disabilities." Recognizing the lack of skilled employment options for adults with developmental disabilities, the Biers decided to create jobs themselves through this popcorn venture, with all of the profits going to their charitable organization. According to the site, every tin of popcorn purchased "provides at least an hour of meaningful employment" to adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, who perform jobs like making popcorn, labeling products, and marketing.

The couple developed the idea for the business and the nonprofit in 2015 when their son, Sam, grew tired of his job at a grocery store. Sam, 27, is on the autism spectrum, and after six years of working as a “cart guy,” he decided he was ready to try something new. Employment opportunities were scarce, though. Jobs that provided enough resources for someone on the spectrum tended to consist of menial work, and more skilled positions involved a tough interview process.

“Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer,” Steven Bier told TAP Into East Brunswick in 2015.

Unemployment rates are especially high among adults with autism. Last year, Drexel University reported that only 14 percent of autistic adults who use state-funded disability services are employed in paid work positions. And while high-functioning autistic adults are often perfectly capable of working in technical careers, the actual process of getting hired can be challenging. People with autism tend to struggle with understanding nuance and social conventions, which makes the interviewing process particularly difficult.

Enter the Biers' popcorn business. What began in 2015 as the Pop-In Cafe (which still sells popcorn and deli items at its New Jersey location) now distributes flavored popcorn all over the world. In three years, the organization has gone from a staff of four, with one employee on the autism spectrum, to a staff of 50, nearly half of whom are on the spectrum. In July, the organization plans to expand to a larger production facility in order to keep up with demand.

The company provides an environment for employees to learn both hard skills, like food preparation and money management, and what the company describes as “watercooler life skills.”

"There just aren't many programs that teach these sorts of things in a real-world environment, with all that entails," Bier told My Central Jersey. "These are skills that the kids can use here, and elsewhere."

According to A Plus, you can now buy Popcorn for the People in person at locations like the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and the Lyric Theatre in Times Square. The organization sells 12 flavors of popcorn (including cookies and cream, Buffalo wing, and French toast), all created by Agnes Cushing-Ruby, a chef who donates 40 hours a week to the company.

“I never thought that the little pop-up shop would grow into this,” Sam told A Plus. “It makes me so happy to see we have helped so many people.”

[h/t A Plus]

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IHOb Restaurants
10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
IHOb Restaurants
IHOb Restaurants

Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
Wikimedia Commons

Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


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In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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