- WhiteWave Foods' plant-based food and beverage brand Silk has launched a year-long sponsored research initiative with the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
- The research will address different perceptions of challenges facing the food industry from the perspectives of food companies, academics, industry leaders, and consumers. It hopes to inspire solutions for improvements in three main areas: environmental sustainability, transparency, and health and wellness.
- The initiative will involve examining food and beverage companies' practices and efforts in these areas and a survey of U.S. consumers about their thoughts and behaviors surrounding plant-based products. Any gaps identified between the two segments' perspectives will be the source of discussion at a summit the CHGE will host in the future.
This research initiative demonstrates Silk and WhiteWave's commitment to finding solutions to food and beverage-related problems, which has implications for its business and the industry as a whole. Research results could uncover better ways to develop or market products to consumers, and Silk would have first dibs on those innovations. The move may also reflect an act of transparency and activism.
But WhiteWave is still a large food and beverage manufacturer. And when manufacturers are involved with research initiatives, especially when health and wellness are at the forefront, those results can be perceived as skewed in favor of the company.
Plant-based foods and beverages are at the heart of this research. As a plant-based products manufacturer, Silk (and WhiteWave) could be seen as influencing research results to the company's benefit. Silk is pushing plant-based products as a solution for better sustainability, but consumers could view it as a way to boost the company's sales.
Research funding has long been controversial, particularly when it comes to nutrition-related research and food industry funding. A recent BMJ article featured comments in support and opposing industry-funded research. Suggestions included having safeguards in place to manage how researchers use industry funds and how they structure and carry out the research. The article also suggested the industry donate directly to the university or research institution rather than individuals (Coca-Cola did the latter in the GEBN debacle). Perhaps these are avenues Silk could pursue in an effort to achieve accepted transparency.