The snack giant moved one-third of its 32 plants to "zero landfill" last year -- the rest will achieve that goal by the end of 2011. Who knew snack chips could be so earth-friendly? Top 50 No. 28
2. Aldi Süd
At a time when consumers are overloaded with choices, the discount supermarket chain has built a global empire by offering fewer: between 1,000 and 1,500 items at near-wholesale prices, versus a typical U.S. supermarket's 30,000 items. To keep costs down, its products are mostly private-label, and only cash and debit cards are accepted. Top 50 No. 40
3. Darden Restaurants
The seafood giant, which owns Red Lobster, is researching new ways to ensure the sustainability of the seafood industry -- and the ocean. It partnered with the government of New Brunswick, Canada, in a new method of breeding wild lobsters -- raising larvae in captivity and then releasing lobsters into the wild at "stage four," when their survival chances are much higher.
The world's largest food company created a pharma-style pipeline for R&D focused on the "functional foods" market, which combines sustenance and science and is expected to be a $128 billion market by 2013. Fueling this growth is Nestlé's research on everything from intestinal microbes to chocolate's effects on different metabolic profiles. The Swiss company's research has already brought innovative foods to market, such as high-calcium milk formulated to slow bone loss, and ActiCaf, a patented ingredient now used in PowerBars that allows caffeine to be absorbed in the body more slowly.
Cadbury sells 300 million Dairy Milk chocolate bars a year in the U.K. and Ireland, and, thanks to the confectioner's ambitious Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, all of them are now certified fair trade. Introducing the first mainstream, ethically certified chocolate bar tripled the amount of fair-trade chocolate available to consumers globally. Before Kraft launched its takeover bid, Cadbury announced plans to secure fair-trade certification for Dairy Milk in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in 2010.
Genetically modified crops may turn some stomachs, but GM techniques can be a boon to drought- and cash-strapped countries. Syngenta's Invinsa -- now being tested and expected to be in use by 2012 -- can be sprayed on almost any plant, boosting its drought tolerance and farmers' yields.
Part supermarket, part museum, part restaurant, Eataly is dedicated to selling artisanal eats to the Slow Food crowd, with signs educating consumers on how that gnocchi was made or how far that mozzarella traveled. The flagship Turin store attracts 8,000 visitors daily and the company has spread across Italy and into Japan. It comes to the U.S. later this year.
You won't see ground-beef recalls or E. coli scandals at this warehouse retailer. It's one of the very few in the grocery industry that independently tests its ground beef before selling it to consumers, eschewing suppliers that refuse testing, even if it means skipping a bargain. Costco won major food-safety points last year when Tyson finally agreed to having its meat tested.
With more than $1 million in VC funding, three twentysomethings have created an online marketplace connecting foodies with artisanal food creators. You can think of it as a gourmet Etsy, larded with video features and social-networking tools. Foodzie also handles credit-card payments and marketing for its vendors.
The fast-feeder continued to grow despite the recession, thanks in part to its Innovation Center in Illinois, where it relentlessly tests new tech and processes -- from self-serve kiosks and handheld registers to automated soda fountains -- to shave seconds off customer wait times and smooth out possible wrinkles in new-product launches.