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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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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