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Drawing a line between imitation food and innovation

By Jess Halliday , 20-Apr-2011
Last updated the 22-Apr-2011 at 14:44 GMT

Ceci n'est pas un doughnut
Ceci n'est pas un doughnut

‘I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter!’ When it comes to transparency you can’t get much clearer than Unilever’s famous exclamation-turned-margarine-brand. But new labelling rules to prevent one food masquerading as another should distinguish between intent to mislead and innovations that may benefit consumers.

The European Parliament’s Environment (ENVI) Committee has this week insisted that the new food labelling regulation include a provision that prevents foods being labelled in such a way as to create the impression they are a different food.

“Where an ingredient has been replaced, this should be clearly stated on the label,” said the Parliament’s post-vote statement.

Few would claim that dressing a food up and sending it off to market disguised as another, with no mention on the pack – front or back – would be a reasonable or responsible approach. For a start, allergy sufferers would be eating in the dark, completely unwitting to whether the next bite could be their last.

That’s why ingredient panels and allergen labelling rules exist, after all.

But rapporteur Renate Sommer, drew attention to an important point after the vote: One person’s imitation food is another’s innovation – and stigmatising products that are made with non-traditional ingredients risks putting the brakes on innovation, the driving force of the European food industry that gives it a competitive edge.

When is a cake not a cake?

The line between imitation and innovation depends partly on which side of it you are standing. The food industry is fiercely proud of its capacity to produce foods that look, smell, and taste as good as the original, but are sugar-free, contain 50 per cent less fat, or omit a certain allergen.

That, it says, is innovation that allows it to remain competitive and deliver foods that fit with healthier lifestyles and meet special dietary needs.

But if you’re a consumer who doesn’t think to flip over the pack, would you cake seem any less a cake if you learned that lovely creamy texture came not from a cow, but from tapioca starch from Thailand?

The answer probably lies in the individual’s preferences and over-all relationship with food. Are you a whole foods fanatic, an indulgence-seeker, a diet-hard dieter, or any other category beloved of market researchers (notwithstanding that many of us shift pigeon-holes from day to day, depending on what’s on offer, what we fancy, and how ferocious our hunger pangs are)?

What about when the replaced ingredient is intrinsic to the product’s identity?

The dairy industry is a staunch defender of rules that prevent ‘soy beverages’ being called ‘soy milk’ – even though the consumer of that soy product may use it in exactly the same way as they use milk, and probably say, ‘can you pass the soy milk?’ not ‘can you pass the soy beverage?’.

Similarly, a cheese-like product made with almonds should probably carry some kind of qualification. Almond cheese could mean either a white mass of ground up almonds and other ingredients that resembles cheese, or real cheese studded with almonds.

But and new rules on how that distinction is made should not be based on words and phrases that imply skullduggery or lower quality as, in some contexts and to some consumers, the word ‘imitation’ may.

There are many reasons for replacing one ingredient with another - costs, health, allergies, availability, rules of religion, safety... The fact that food technologies can do this when they need to is, at the end of the day, pretty cool.

In any case, the debate opens up a whole new realm of 'I Can't Believe' brand extension possibilities for Unilever...

Jess Halliday is senior editor of FoodNavigator.com. She has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States for 12 years and recently gained a MSc in Food Policy with distinction at City University London. Jess lives in a small village famous for figs in southern France.

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