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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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