Odwalla Juice has a classic startup story: Three musicians launched the company from a backyard shed in 1980, using a hand juicer to make fresh juice for restaurants in the Bay Area. A couple of decades later, the company was so successful that its investors voted to sell it to Coca-Cola. The sale prompted one of the founders to quit and say Odwalla had essentially lost the essence of the brand.
Odwalla isn’t alone in selling out its hippy roots to be taken under the wing of a large corporation.
Walk down the aisle at Whole Foods, and the chances are good that the independent-looking brand on the label is actually owned by a larger conglomerate. Kellogg owns the Kashi brand of cereals along with Fruit Loops. General Mills owns Cascadian Farms along with Count Chocula. Last year, soon after macaroni and cheese-maker Annie’s Homegrown talked about the struggle to stay independent; it ended up selling to General Mills as well.
If you’re the kind of person who wants to know where your money is actually going when you buy these brands, a recent infographic in the Washington Post can help. It tracks 92 popular organic brands that are now owned by food giants like Pepsi and Unilever, based on research from Phil Howard, an associate professor at Michigan State University. While some of the changes may be better known than others, Howard says shoppers might tend to assume that a company like Annie’s is still independent–and the big brands want it to stay that way.
“Nearly all of the top 100 food processors in North American that have acquired organic brands hide this ownership,” he says. “The exceptions are Hain Celestial and WhiteWave, which focus primarily on natural and organic products. Organic consumers are more distrustful of conventional food corporations, which are quite far from the pastoral image that many organic brands use in their marketing.”
While a change in ownership doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the product itself, it can. Silk Soymilk, for example, quietly tried to switch from organic to “natural” soy after agribusiness giant Dean Foods bought the company. It later reintroduced organic versions at a higher price.
“Many organic brands started with a strong sense of idealism, and a desire to create a better alternative to the mainstream food system,” says Howard. “As these companies have been acquired, it’s been common for the idealists to be forced out, and for the acquiring firm to put more emphasis on profits for their own sake. Some changes have included less commitment to organic ingredients, sourcing cheaper ingredients from far more distant locations, and pressure to weaken organic standards.”
In a few cases, brands have kept some independence even after acquisition. Ben and Jerry’s managed to become a B Corp–meaning they can consider the community and social impact in business decisions, instead of just the bottom line–long after they were bought by Unilever. They also continue to argue that GMO ingredients should be labeled, even while their parent company fights on the other side of the battle. But they may be the exception rather than the rule.
By mapping out ownership, Howard hopes to help consumers make more informed choices. “Consumers who support organic values, like avoiding transgenic ingredients, may not realize that for some of the organic foods they buy, the money ultimately goes to firms that spent millions to defeat initiatives to label transgenic ingredients in West Coast states,” he says. “By paying attention to ownership they can better support the idealistic firms that continue to refuse enormous buyout offers.”