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The business of engineering healthier foods

Corby Kummer investigates how breakfast cereals are made and how the big food companies are working to make them healthier. As he discovers, it’s a tricky business.

The area of experimentation that most caught my interest uses enzymes to break down whole grains and cereals into easier-to-digest powders that can be sneaked into foods like cake mixes and light breads in which whole grains would be unpalatably heavy, and into foods where you’d never expect to find them: soups, sauces, puddings and creamy fillings that already have starch in some form. “Why not whole-grains starch?” asked Monica Fischer, head of the food science and technology department. Breaking down the grains can also create sweetness, which raises the possibility of substituting whole grains for sugar in certain products. I saw packages of two Peruvian cereal drinks: Ecco and Nesquik, both marked “con cereales Andinos” (containing Andean cereals), including corn, quinoa and amaranth. Those and other grains from affiliates in South America and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, are being studied to understand how and whether they can be extruded into pasta and noodles and used in place of northern European wheat.

Because the research is basic, Nestle doesn’t know yet which of its hundreds of food businesses will apply its findings-the actual testing of products takes place in 300 “application groups” around the world. But Nestle already buys locally grown grains in the U.S. and Canada and will likely increase the percentage. Not long from now we might find Stouffer’s turkey tetrazzini with whole grains in both the noodles and the sauce; one of those cereal drinks on a local supermarket shelf; amaranth in a health drink; and more fiber and whole grains in Purina pet food, a big part of Nestle business. (Nestle won’t talk about its future marketing plans.) Or whole-grain Kit Kats, which Nestle has already marketed in England. Or Buitoni quinoa fusilli, which the rising number of gluten-intolerant people will certainly welcome. But will Ecuadoreans?

The research I saw at the world’s largest and sixth-largest food companies will, of course, come at a price. Processing, even to restore a food’s natural ingredients or not remove them in the first place, always adds to a food’s cost. Another potential threat of the new food research is that these products could co-opt traditional markets, like the ones for quinoa and amaranth, and begin to erase native foods, which can be made for a fraction of the cost and have been shown for millennia to be healthful and practical. And there are plenty of other costs I’m leaving out: the treatment of labor, the environmental costs of packaging and transport, the general destruction of small businesses as large corporations grab local markets with lower prices and often bad-for-you food, deceptive claims and advertising, the checkered political history of all these companies.