De-sugared Juice: The Future of Food Innovation?

Recently, I tripped over a short new report from Tetra Pak—you know, the company that prides itself on making one of the most unsustainable forms of packaging out there, gluing paper, plastic and aluminum together in one agglomerated material.1 Tetrapak’s report, like its signature product, is certainly a mixed bag. It explores consumers’ perspectives on food and health, sustainability, economic security, and technology. On the bright side, there were some interesting insights including: more than half of respondents believing that healthy food is the responsibility of manufacturers and brands; that changing their diet contributes to a better world; and that “If a food or drink is not healthy for the individual, it is not sustainable for the planet.” That last one is a powerful way to frame things: we can’t feed people a diet of Coke and Cheetos even if it turns out that they have a lower ecological footprint than leeks and lentils and expect to have good outcomes.2

Correct. Not healthy for you, not sustainable for the planet. (Image from evelynlo via Pixabay).

The best insight, though, is this one: 46% of surveyed consumers worried that innovation in food is not good for them, while 62% believed that technology will play a role in ensuring a more sustainable future. That those sentiments seem to be in conflict is not surprising. Technology—in the broad sense of the word—is essential to develop the regenerative agricultural techniques needed and facilitate their wide-scale adoption.3 That includes traditional permaculture practices, modern developments like drip irrigation, and even new innovations like how to best cultivate and support soil microbiomes (especially in a changing climate). At the same time, considering the history of “innovation” in the food industry, and the factory farm, commodity dominated, Earth and local foodways destroying current agribusiness system, it’s not hard to mistrust the industry’s intentions.

Questionable Innovations

Truthfully, what caught my attention in the report were not these tidbits, but the section that explores what food “innovations” consumers would be willing to try. Sure, that included bug protein and lab-grown meat, but also weird ones I hadn’t heard of, including: “biomass fermentation” and “de-sugared juice!”

Especially in the context of reading Ultra-Processed People (UPP), these trigger major red flags. As the author of UPP Chris van Tulleken points out, it’s the food matrix (the way food is structured) that slows down digestion—eating fruit takes time for your body to digest, juice and even pureed fruit is digested quickly, never triggering a feeling of satiation. Worse, tasting sweetness in your mouth primes your body to produce insulin—great in the case you eat sugar as that keeps your blood sugar and energy levels stable. But not so great if you’re consuming artificial sweeteners. These may actually trigger you to become hungry as blood sugar levels drop (in the absence of expected sugar). Perhaps de-sugared juice, which ferments the sugar into alcohol and then removes the alcohol (after using a clarifier to remove the yeast) will turn out not to be a health-crisis-in-a-bottle like soda (though if it is not sweet will artificial sweeteners be necessary to make the products still palatable/saleable?), but it begs the question: is this the right path for the food system to take in our constrained and crowded future?

From the industry’s perspective the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Another innovation explored in the Tetra Pak report was “Food made with low-value side streams.” Sounds tasty, right? But this is a theme that comes up often in UPP. The goal of food companies is to sell edible industrial products that maximize profit, as van Tulleken points out. So any time a company can convert waste into new profit-streams (instead of having to pay someone to dispose of it) is a win-win! So that alcohol captured from de-sugared juice will be sold for making alcoholic seltzers or some other lucrative product.

Not made of coal, but of animal byproducts industrially treated, margarine was one of the first ultraprocessed foods, invented back in the 1870s.5 (Image from Swift Meat Packing Co., printed in Great Falls daily tribune in 1919, via Wikipedia).

The most extreme example of this waste-to-food business occurred during World War II, as van Tulleken chronicles. Paraffin—a waste product made when the Nazis were making coal into fuel (as a way to skirt the allies’ blockade)—was converted into butter (also in short supply because of trade blockades)! This coal butter is what van Tulleken calls the “ultimate processed food.” Sadly, but not surprisingly, it was inedible and sickened those who ate it—which again, not surprisingly included concentration camp prisoners, as well as sailors stationed on submarines (who, considering their average lifespan was about 60 days after boarding a sub did not provide long-term safety data). But coal butter’s sickening nature was revealed after the war, when British Intelligence found data that chronic ingestion “caused severe kidney problems and decalcification of bone in animals.”4

While that example sounds extreme, as I read Ultraprocessed People, the current level of denaturing of ingredients and recombining them already sounds like a dystopian nightmare—Soylent Green, Oryx and Crake, Okja, take your pick—where food production has become a secretive industry with far too little oversight.6 One extreme weather disaster—an extended drought, the flooding of a major agricultural region, conflict, maybe a flu virus that kills off global poultry stocks—and there’s enough hunger and disruptions in food supplies that the food industry can roll out whatever they want—coal butter perhaps?

So consumers are right to be skittish about food innovation, unless again we think more holistically about the word: Eating seasonally; supporting local CSAs and farmers markets, yardfarming, and foraging wild foods; periodic fasting; eating whole and natural foods that are low on the food chain; and minimizing ultraprocessed foods and instead returning to kitchens to enjoy and experiment with real food. Yes, easy to say, and much harder to do, but recognizing that we’re in an adversarial relationship with food companies already, and choosing natural food whenever possible is a start. After all, it’s your health and the health of the planet that’s at steak.

(Image from Bru-nO via Pixabay with additions by Erik Assadourian)


1) In theory, Tetra Pak says these cartons are now recyclable, though many Americans (and a lot more developing country folks) live in places that can’t recycle these, so that the only way to deal with these convenience products at the end of their lives is to burn them, bury them, or make them into questionable “upcycled” products, like wallets, purses, and bird feeders. Plus, it’s important to remember that recycling is not a magical energy-neutral, pollution-free solution.

2) Think about it. People eat more calories when they’re lacking key micronutrients. They grow in weight and illnesses. So even if marginally more sustainable, when you factor in health care costs, lost productivity, suffering, container waste, and so much more, these fundamentally are not sustainable and cannot be the base of a diet for a planet of 8+ billion people. Of course, there are many examples of making healthy food into unsustainable products too (think shrink wrapping vegetables).

3) Marketing and persuasion technologies included.

4) Dogs wouldn’t even eat it, as van Tulleken notes (Read his excellent overview on pages 69-74).

5) Horrifically, whale oil actually made up 17% of total fats used in margarine production by 1960 (see p. 26 of UPP).

6) Particularly after having learned in UPP about how little oversight of approving food additives currently exists in the U.S., where companies can simply assure the FDA that the additives are safe, without even submitting any studies!

Share this Reflection:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *