What you need to know
Food additives are not bad for you in most cases, but they do mask the natural flavors of foods.
Disclaimer: This article from The News Lens Brand Studio is sponsored by FamilyMart.
When choosing food products, should we prefer labels stating ‘no additives’?
In all honesty, these labels reflect an uneasy public’s worries about what often amount to urban myths. Additives are not definitively bad for you, as legal additives help maintain the quality and safety of the food. It’s just that, the more additives we have in our food, the less natural our food will taste.
The colossal misunderstanding toward ‘food additives’ in Taiwan
Taiwanese people have reasonable skepticism about additives, and food quality in general. The country has been plagued by food safety scandals, which peaked in 2013 and 2014.
“The food safety scandal was actually made up of two major issues,” says Hsu Hui-yu (許惠玉), director of the John Tung Foundation (JTF). “One was an issue about actual food safety, and the other was the issue of public unrest. The former should have been properly handled by the government, whereas the public unrest was related to consumer knowledge and psychology.”
Hsu pointed out that in recent years, as food safety incidents have occurred more frequently, Taiwanese consumers have been fearfully avoiding food additives. As their excessive worries have evolved into urban legends, a few unscrupulous manufacturers have taken the opportunity to mislead people through dishonest food labels.
As a result, food shelves have become a battlefield of “no additives” labels. Originally, it was only cholesterol-free vegetable oils that had “cholesterol free” labels. Now, even though almost all fresh corn in Taiwan is already non-GMO (genetically modified organism), many operators still label their products “non-GMO corn” in order to assuage public fears. Some products contain “Lead-Free” or “No Preservatives” labels to placate a fearful public, but these products may have many other additives instead.
The public distrust of food additives creates a situation where even legally controlled amounts of additives are seen as being harmful.
Recently, a factory in Kaohsiung started adding “sodium fumarate” to the rice of their lunchtime ready-meals, which caused heated debate. However, sodium fumarate is in fact a legal flavor-enhancing additive, which also has antibacterial properties. Generally, when cooking rice at home there is no need to add it to the rice. However, because the factory cooks a large amount of rice in advance and needs to keep it warm, adding an appropriate amount of sodium fumarate helps prevent the rice from being contaminated by microorganisms, especially in south Taiwan’s hot and humid weather.
Consumer demand: The path back to natural flavors in food
In the past, all-natural raw ingredients such as sugar and salt were used as food preservatives. Many food additives used today are used legally as replacements for sugar and salt and are more effective at preserving food and avoiding microbial contamination.
If they are used correctly, additives work similarly to sugar and salt to help preserve food and maintain its quality. In certain situations, such as when raw materials are not readily available in the surrounding environment or when manufacturing technology is insufficient, additive use becomes necessary.
Although legal additives have plenty of legitimate uses, Hsu Hui-yu noticed that as more additives were being used in foods, the public gradually started ceasing to notice the natural flavors of their food. For example, traditional 100 percent natural rice vermicelli tastes very different from the type we now commonly find in supermarkets. Hsu believes that customers have been led astray from the product’s real taste.
This road leading back to “natural flavors” requires a combination of increased consumer knowledge with a willingness to proactively demand and maintain certain standards from the food industry. Clean Label is a consumer driven movement in Europe demanding a return to real food and natural flavors, led by the industry’s distribution channels and vendors, which then affected the food industry’s supply chain and finally spread down to consumers, giving the people the right to choose food without additives.
This journey leading back to “natural flavors” is beginning in Taiwan. “Once the food industry switches their focus from ‘consumer selection’ to ‘consumer demands,’” said Hsu, “it will be a sign that the industry has started to think about food safety issues from the perspective of sustainable business management.”
Give consumers the ability to choose high-quality food without headaches
Taiwanese organic food company Leezen promotes food with natural flavors and has been championing foods with no additives or minimal additives for over 20 years.
Leezen cooperates with farmers, encouraging them not to spray pesticides over their crops. However, without the use of pesticides, output is sharply reduced, and costs are far higher. Due to this, the company tries to help bear some of the costs, while also providing educational and technical support for switching to pesticide alternatives such as vinegar and pepper solutions, as well as planting insect-repellent plants such as onions and basil around plots of crops.
After removing pesticides from the process, the environment and soil gradually returns to its original, healthier appearance, while crop yields also improve. Leezen has also cooperated with processing plants and insisted that those factories produce food according to the same no/minimal additives standards. With their ‘no pre-set budget’ model, they encouraged more processing plants to try producing healthy and delicious products.
Why does Leezen refuse to set a threshold on cost? “If you set a budget, then the factory will eventually turn to additives in order to meet the requirements of the budget,” said Jim Han (韓敬白), Leezen’s deputy general manager. He said that the company usually waits until the factory has finished making the product before deciding on the retail price. If the price seems too high, Leezen turns its attention to adjusting the proportion of raw ingredients used.
“Our main concern is the public, so even though products can be more expensive, they cannot be too expensive,” said Han. “Once those goods start selling well, we can then afford to support the farmers in growing organic produce and can hopefully keep expanding the market.”
Leezen’s dream is “constructing a perfect industry supply chain,” said Han, in which their role is grafting bridges in the hope that it will benefit the industry’s entire ecosystem. Despite this dream, Han admits that due to the current fast food culture, the reach of their message is still limited. They thus turned their focus to FamilyMart, the influential convenience store brand with over 3,000 stores in Taiwan, and offered to work together with them to achieve the dream of convincing the industry and the public to value quality over quantity.
Sustainable change starts with the ecosystem
Distribution channels and vendors are closer to the public and can reach a larger range of age groups. Therefore, having FamilyMart introduce “Clean Label” means that it will have a greater, more profound influence on the food ecosystem.
FamilyMart will be sending its whole self-branded range of products, the FamilyMart Collection, to Clean Label for inspection in 2018. It also plans to expand its range of freshly-made food products in 2019, with the further aim of both the FamilyMart collection and its new freshly-made food range being recognized as the benchmark for the industry in 2020. It plans to push for all food brands to receive food certifications for their products in the future.
At present, some FamilyMart stores have dedicated space to selling Leezen products, and the two parties will continue to cooperate on improving supply chains and food technology in the future.
"Although we still need to help educate consumer concepts,” said Han, “businesses have a greater power in changing the industry quicker; once the vendors, suppliers, and food manufacturers come to their senses, they can help protect consumers by overseeing all processes from the source to maintain food standards.” Han believes that the food market will only actively develop and create a healthy ecosystem if consumers become accustomed to “good food” and start demanding it.
With their stores a staple of many street corners in Taiwan, FamilyMart’s eventual introduction of Clean Label promises to be impactful, helping oversee the food safety of the nation from source to consumer. This street-level ‘food revolution’ will not only change the way people eat; it will also lead us on the path toward regaining the natural flavors of our food.
This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens and can be found here.
Translator: Zeke Li
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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