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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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Weekly Column

August 1, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner



When a British Columbia ice cream vendor noticed a radical change in the flavour and texture of the Breyers ice cream being sold from his stand, he made a shocking discovery.


Jon Steinman


The global food system has changed rapidly over the past few decades. The consolidation of food producers has been one of the most significant.


The average Canadian grocery store is now stocked with products produced by only a handful of companies; most of which are not even Canadian!


One of the largest of these companies is U.K.-based Unilever. The company has long been one of the largest purchasers of vegetable oils in the world, much of which is put towards the production of their many brands of soaps and margarine.


Unilever is also one of Canada's largest ice cream manufacturers, and since their purchase of Breyers in 1993, the company now produces approximately 25% of the ice cream consumed in the country.


Just as most Canadians are likely unaware of the company's significant stake in the ice cream sector, Canadians are too perhaps unaware that ice cream may be heading in the same direction that butter did in mid-20th century Canada. It was then that company's like Unilever first introduced margarine a vegetable oil replacement for butter.


Two families of ingredients in particular have begun making their way into Breyers' ice cream products; vegetable oil and modified milk ingredients. As for the latter, take a closer look at your cheese, yogurt, or ice cream products, and you may be hard pressed to notice milk or cream as an ingredient. Instead, you will notice "milk ingredients" or "modified milk ingredients".


Of the handful of food manufacturers operating in Canada, many are choosing to bypass the more expensive fluid milk products and opting instead for ingredients such as milk protein concentrates (MPC), butteroils and casein.


While the protein concentrates may indeed start off as skim milk, the milk is passed through a membrane, removing everything but the protein itself.


In 2004 alone, the Canadian ice cream industry experienced a 48% rise in imported butteroil and other milk ingredients. These ingredients have now displaced over 50% of the milk for the ice cream market in the country.


In our cold Canadian climate, we may be a little more nave when it comes to recognizing changes in the texture and flavour of our ice cream. Let's face it, we only consume ice cream en masse for a short period of the year, and for most of us, the excitement over a cold ice cream cone in the hot summer can understandably outweigh any critical thought. However, for Nelson, British Columbia's Geoff Ross-Smith, changes were noticed immediately.


Ross-Smith had been operating a popular ice cream stand in the community of Ainsworth for a little over a year. His brand of choice was Breyers, long known by many as a premium brand using real cream. In his second year of operation, Ross-Smith noticed a substantial change in the quality of the product within the span of one week. "The next week I bought it, it was double churned for extra creamy taste," says Ross-Smith, who refers to the subtle label change. Most noticeable was a change in the texture, the taste, and the way the ice cream unthawed. "With the all-natural ice cream, it was more of a melt," he describes. "This stuff just stayed in the shape it was put there. Because I want to feel right about the food I serve to people, once I realized the recipe had been changed, I didn't want to serve Breyers at all," he adds.


Without notice, Breyers had changed the recipe of their more inexpensive product line by replacing the real milk and cream with modified milk ingredients. Ross-Smith was quite fooled by the change because the company continued using the same blue label previously used on the natural product. "To a person that's been buying it for the past 10 years as all-natural ice cream, they're just looking at the package," says Ross-Smith, "they're not necessarily looking at the ingredients."


Ross-Smith contacted Unilever to voice his complaint, and their response was even more frustrating. "They were willing to send me some gift certificates," recounts Ross-Smith. "Like, here, you can try another one of our crappy products," he added with tongue-in-cheek.


"So I bought an ice cream machine." A more effective response indeed.


Ross-Smith is now the proud owner of Kootenay Kreamery a small-scale ice cream producer selling a line of flavours to more than ten stores in the region.


While it may be shocking to discover such actions being taken by the multi-national food manufacturers operating in Canada, it's a promising sign to know that so long as Canada's food supply begins to increasingly lack any resemblance to food, there are people like Ross-Smith ready to resurrect the way food once tasted.


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (



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