Why Authenticity is the New Transparency in Food

Pick up a bag of standard potato chips from any major food company today, and you are likely to see two things. One, an ingredient list that sounds simple and familiar such as“Potatoes, Vegetable Oil, and Salt”. Two, a story of a farmer who grows potatoes.

Cleanup in Aisle 5

You may have noticed that there’s been an arms race of sorts to cleanup ingredient lists in the grocery store aisles. And it’s not just potato chips: 2015 was the tipping point where “clean” food labels and farm to table narratives finally moved full bore into the mainstream. This was the year General Mills  announced it's nixing artificial colors and flavors, McDonalds announced it's moving to chicken raised without human antibiotics, Hershey said goodbye to things like emulsifiers in favor of “simple, easy to understand ingredients”, and many others major food companies announced makeovers for ingredients lists this year. The goal? To reflect the shorter, simpler and more "natural sounding" tastes modern consumers say they want.  

This transparency trend is playing out beyond the boundaries of packaging, too. Last month, at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual Food and Nutrition Conference in Nashville (one of the world’s largest gatherings of registered dietitians (with nearly 10,000 in attendance), wholesome ingredients were literally flowing out from exhibitor booths. Rustic looking crates filled with an abundance of produce, wooden bowls showcasing the whole, simple ingredients that went into products, and booth walls lined with narratives of the land and growers were common themes across the board from small startups to large multinational corporations.

I think the tipping point for me happened this week, when I maneuvered around a parked 18 wheeler of a major national pizza chain. Emblazoned on its side was the unmistakable influence of the new Food Economy: a graphic showing me the 5 simple steps that my pizza makes from the farm to my oven.

Transparency versus Authenticity

But while transparency has become 2015's buzzword for companies and consumers alike, it’s different from what many consumers actually crave, which is authenticity.

What’s the difference? Some definitions from Merriam-Webster provide some insight:

Transparent: Able to be seen through. Honest and open, not secretive.

Authentic: Not false or imitation. True to one’s own personality, spirit or character.

If transparency is about tinkering with the ingredient list to be more readable, authenticity is more akin to a company's character. If transparency includes trendworthy ingredients, authenticity is congruence with the company’s sourcing, social responsibility, mission and actions at every level of the organization. If transparency is trying to communicate how ingredients are "better for me,” authenticity today means is about transparent business practices that work to make food "better for all". It’s the fine print behind the glossy press release, what my grandmother might call walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

And, it’s what a growing number of consumers, especially Millennials, are hungry for according to a new Mintel Report.  A company driving a narrative about how important nature is to food, for instance, lacks authenticity in many consumers' minds if they are also quietly funding groups or initiatives aimed at fighting the labeling of GMOs. A press releases about antibiotic use that leaves important details to the fine print (i.e. only antibiotics considered vital to human health, not in all animal products, data on actual antibiotic use will be kept secret, or actual implementation by a date several years away) can add more confusion rather than confidence to the real issues at hand. These steps have a measure of transparency, but not trust, and it’s one of the key reasons Millennials are turning away from iconic foods and brands in favor of companies they view as being more aligned with their own values. 

Why Authenticity is the Next Step

As someone who consults with select food companies and commodity boards, I certainly appreciate the considerable time and challenges that global companies face when changing enormous supply chains, or when trying to secure higher quality ingredient sourcing at scale. And to be sure, these types changes can positively move the needle on vital issues such as curbing antibiotic use in livestock (which the American Academy of Pediatrics just weighed in on today, in a new report), or help transform the market to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

One hallmark of transparency is that it’s often more focused on a consumer endpoint-cutting artificial ingredients, for example. But the harder work, (and often the more expensive work) of authenticity goes deeper: honest and authentic communication about better ingredient sourcing, 3rd party certifications, and financial investments or commitments that may not make Wall Street happy in the next quarter, but make growers, company employees and eaters feel connected, valued and happy long after the meal is over. 

The original wave of eaters who were the catalyst for the push for transparency understand this. Companies who understand this, and who are fundamentally ready to change the way they do business, have a real advantage moving forward.  And those who are already working hard at doing "authenticity" authentically from the ground up are set to soar.