As the weight of obesity in western society lies, some might argue, paradoxically side by side with our increasing desire towards all that is 'healthy' and 'natural', does this mean we losing sight of the debate surrounding quality? Leif Kjærgaard from Danish ingredients company Danisco suggests "the quality of food ingredients is much more important to discuss than whether the food ingredients are 'natural' or not".
For Kjærgaard 'nature' is a central element in the food debate. When asking consumers about additives, the answer is clear - they prefer natural additives and reject those that are artificial. Everyone wants to be associated with the term 'natural'.
Expanding the debate Kjærgaard claims that what better example of a natural product than a first-class blue cheese, which pleases the eye, nose and palate? He goes on to highlight the fact that the bacteria cultures used in the production have been cultivated in closed hi-tech circuits, and that the enzyme used to make the cheese coagulate has been extracted from calves' stomachs in a process, which presumably seems just as unnatural to the curious consumer as the routines in a slaughterhouse.
Or perhaps the rennet is the result of genetic engineering where the gene, which codes the original enzyme, has been isolated in a laboratory and mass-produced by diligent microorganisms in large fermenting tanks. Incidentally, he adds, this is the same principle used to produce Danisco's HOX bread enzyme. The original seaweed, in which the HOX enzyme is found, does not produce the enzyme in as large quantities as the microorganisms used in our production.
And so, concludes Kjærgaard, this leads to the million dollar question: Do we speak of 'natural' enzymes when they come from calves' stomachs and seaweed, and are the enzymes 'unnatural' when produced by microorganisms in fermenting tanks?
And what about the other products, he adds, that Danisco and other producers define as ingredients but which Danish legislation refers to as additives. One example could be a milkshake, containing for instance banana flavour and a stabiliser (E407). The flavour may by natural, nature-identical (as in the above case of the enzyme) or maybe the ingredients manufacturer has produced a flavour containing less fragrance and flavour components than the original flavour, which classifies the flavour as 'artificial'. But this does not necessarily make the flavour any less good. The opposite might even be the case, stresses the Danisco SVP of global innovation and business development.
As such, Kjærgaard moves on to pose the question: could we not - as producers of foods and food ingredients - agree to talk about quality rather than continue discussing the unspecific subject of natural/unnatural? He adds, is it not so that the reason why food ingredients producers such as Chr. Hansen, Novozymes and Danisco have managed to place Denmark in a leading position on the world market is that their products add quality to the end products by meeting the customers' expectations?
"Is it not so that part of this quality is based on the fact that our ingredients can be produced in a very pure and standardised form (this is where genetic engineering enters the picture as an excellent - but politically incorrect - tool)?" Kjærgaard writes.
"Purity and standardisation are key words in industrial food production and these factors contribute to ensuring that today's consumers can buy high-quality industrially produced foods. True - there are also many low-quality products to choose from but this is just another case of demand controlling supply," he adds.
And finally Kjærgaard concludes with strong, and certainly pertinent, words set to fire the debate. "When Danisco through its branding campaign explains that we use palm oil, seaweed, sugar beet and citrus peel and then add knowledge, we are telling the story about modern industrialised food production. Nature disappeared the day man began cultivating it. The industry should make an effort to promote acknowledgement of this fact - rather than contributing to maintaining the illusion."