What Is ‘Big Food’ and Why Do We Care?

big food packaged goods in supermarket

There’s a growing movement of more mindful consumers. We’re becoming more informed about health, sustainability and ethical practices. And as we do, we’re also becoming smarter, more savvy shoppers.

We’re demanding more from food brands and expect them to align with our values.

This is coinciding with a growing distrust of large, industrial food producers. As a result, the movement towards smaller, local, independent food brands is gaining momentum.

Producing food on a larger scale is more cost effective. Our wallets benefit, but not much else does. The farmers see little in the way of profit, animals suffer and so does the environment.

Sadly, we can’t all afford the premium price tag of food produced in smaller batches with higher quality ingredients.

But as consumers, we have the power to vote with our wallets and impact the way Big Food operates. We can make small changes to our own shopping behaviours and be mindful of where we spend our money.

So, what are the realities of Big Food and how can we really make a change?

Is ‘Big Food’ Just Another Buzzword

In the most general sense, it applies to the very large industrial food producers and manufacturers. These brands tend to dominate the production and sale of packaged (and often processed) food and drink. In the UK this includes Associated British Foods, Unilever and Nestlé.

The term ‘Big Food’ can also be used to refer to large industrial scale agricultural companies. These provide raw materials to the farming industry.

The most well known are Monsanto and DuPont. These two companies have an almost monopoly like hold on the seed and grain industry. Even more so now, since the merger of Monsanto and Bayer.

Even if you haven’t heard of them, you’ve almost certainly eaten food grown from their seeds or animals fed on their grain.

big food agriculture

Big in Size, Big in Influence

These are big companies but ‘so what?’ you might say. It’s not the size of the companies that’s the problem. Their behaviour, power and influence are the real concern.

The majority of Big Food conglomerates have shareholders that they are accountable to. This often means that profit is their only – or at least primary – goal.

As a consequence, their purpose is to make money and announce record breaking annual profits. Health, nutrition, ethical practices and sustainability are pushed aside or way down the priority list.

Packaged foods from big name brands tend to contain unnecessary fillers. They’re often full of salt, sugar and fat to make them taste good. Which can actually make us addicted to them.

Addictive or not, processed, packaged foods can put us at a higher risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

More often than not, they’re cheap, fast and convenient. And as they’re made from high calorie, nutrient poor ingredients, they’re not very filling. We eat them, we get hungry again, and we buy more. All good news for the Big Food bank balance.

big food supermarket shelves

Due to their size, these companies have very large research and development budgets. All too often we see reports where these funds have been used on things other than a new product or ingredient.

Funds are used to influence research studies to report results that reflect better on the brand. They’re used to lobby government bodies or other influential institutions to put pressure on them to defend their practices.

Challenging Big Food

As consumers we don’t have to accept that food has to be this way.

Big Food has gained its power over the last 40-50 years alongside the rise of supermarkets. But there’s no reason that we can’t send it back to where it came from.

There are many impact brands that offer better, healthier and more sustainable options. Generally, these are small scale brands doing good in some way.

They might be more mindful of the environment by producing higher welfare meat. Or they may insist on fair trade ingredients. They may also be a 1% for the Planet member or B-Corp certified. These schemes demand the highest levels of ethics and sustainability.

big food in supermarket aisles

Big Power Means Big Potential Change

It’s not all doom and gloom however, some of the larger corporations are starting to take notice and change the way they operate. The media has been awash with some of the larger companies buying up smaller more agile brands that have sustainability and the environment amongst their core values. A prime example is the acquisition of Innocent Drinks by Coca-Cola.

While the critics might suggest that these buy-outs mean the smaller brands lose their identity and independence, it allows them the opportunity to scale and make even more impact. In the majority of cases this wouldn’t have been possible without the investment from the larger Big Food player.

Big Food companies have significant power and influence which means they also have the greatest opportunity to make big positive change. With significant research facilities and large budgets they are able to tackle some of the big challenges facing the food industry at scale, and set new standards.

Unilever set out in 2010 to change the way that Big Food does business by defining its own Sustainable Living Plan. Using the UN’s sustainable development goals, Unilever has been independently audited and found to be progressing toward achieving the goals they set.

These larger companies can be thought of a bit like a cruise ship – it can take a long time to make a significant turn. It is this slow rate of change that has some in the industry challenging just how sustainable Unilever’s practices really are.

How Do I Recognise a Big Brand Food vs a Smaller Brand?

If you’re serious about limiting your Big Food purchases as much as possible, you need to become a label reading pro. Look on the back of packets of food to find logos and trademarks from big brands.

Only ten companies own the majority of the food and drink we buy in the UK. So at least there’s not many to remember! Look for the following names hiding in tiny print on tins, packets and bottles:

  • Kellogg’s
  • Associated British Foods
  • General Mills
  • Danone
  • Mondelez
  • Mars
  • Coca-Cola
  • Unilever
  • PepsiCo
  • Nestlé

Even food brands you thought were independent may be owned by one of these Big Ten.

Between them, they make billions of pounds a year. Producer welfare, your health and the environment are placed firmly below profit.

Other than reading labels, try to avoid packaged food as much as possible. Instead, buy fresh, UK grown produce and make meals at home using whole ingredients.

Choosing UK grown, locally produced fresh food will mean fewer Big Food brands. It’s much simpler than you think to swap imported produce for British.

Big food - locally grown berries

The Power of Our Pound

The food industry is bustling with innovative startups and small producers who believe in better solutions. There are entire brands centred around better health, nutrition and sustainability.

When choosing what products to buy, we have power. We can choose to support the producers that reflect our own values and principles. And choose to ignore the rest.

Companies who provide transparency on how they produce their products do exist. As do brands who disclose information on their raw materials and care about the same issues their customers do. As consumers who care, it’s within our power to find them.

Stay up to date with the food brands doing better than Big Food by joining the Eco & Beyond community.