INNOVATION. IT’S A word we hear a lot these days. Modern society worships innovation. Governments have programmes and policies to promote innovation. There are endless books on and awards for innovation. It must be a good thing, right?

To answer this question, consider a few recent innovations in ‘value-added’ foods. A few examples: a microwavable version of tinned soup that’s designed to fit in your car’s cup holder and be drunk directly out of the container – no spoon required; fat free potato crisps, thanks to a synthesized form of cooking oil that can’t be digested; and even edible food wraps – no need to waste time unwrapping that plastic film from your sandwich.

But what makes something truly innovative? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word innovate as “to bring in novelties; make changes in.” To be truly innovative, I propose that we must consider two things. First, is the change real, or is it simply superficial? Innovation requires real change. It should be more than a fresh paint job or re-arranging the furniture. Every year, almost 20,000 new products show up on the grocery store shelves. Increasingly, these “new foods” consist predominantly of the same few ingredients: corn, soy, and wheat. They have new names, new packaging, new marketing campaigns, and new appeal, but they aren’t really different. Most food products that appear on supermarket shelves are simply new ways of assembling the same things, without making any improvements.

This brings me to the second consideration for evaluating whether something is really innovative: motivation. We need to examine not only the changes in the product itself – but also the driving forces behind those changes. There is innovation for profit, and innovation for improvement. Implicit in the concept of innovation is some degree of improvement, but somehow that familiar marketing claim of ‘New and Improved’ seems to have given way to simple exclamations of ‘New!’ on the front of the box. That seems to be all it takes to convince people to try something. Most new products on the grocery shelves don't offer a better option for people, but a better profit for the food industry. Many new products are introduced to encourage us to buy more, eat more, and ultimately increase the profits of the food corporations. Who really benefits from a new colour of soft drink or flavour of chewing gum? The teenager who drinks more of the sugary concoction, or the manufacturer whose sales suddenly skyrocket as they stand out from the mass of other drinks already on the store shelves?

“No one was clamouring for synthetic cheese, or a cereal shaped like a bowling pin; processed food has become largely a supply-driven business—the business of figuring out clever ways to package and market the glut of commodities coming off the farm and out of the wet mills.”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

GIVEN SOCIETY’S APPARENT worship of innovation at all costs, I think it’s time we moved beyond a literal definition of the word to evaluate the substance, or ethics behind new innovations. Food corporations, by definition, constantly try to increase their profits, which means increasing sales and decreasing costs. This can be done by increasing the size of the market, by encouraging the existing market to consume more, or by using cheaper raw materials. Historically, food sales increased as incomes rose and a largely undernourished population could better feed itself. People started to make money and could afford to buy more and better food. This was a good thing when folks weren’t getting enough to eat, or if they were eating substandard food (as was often the case in Europe or North America around the turn of the last century). As food companies and producers competed for the growing marketplace, quality and value would have been good selling points. Better foods would sell more, and companies dealing in them would make more money. Arguments about the ethics of food commodification aside, this wasn’t such a bad situation.

For the past twenty-five years or so, food markets in industrialized countries have been more or less saturated; that is, people have been eating as much as they can. While good for people, this isn’t good for an industry measured in growth. Food companies now have to compete for a bigger share of the existing market. They do this by encouraging us to eat more, and by offering “new” products. As Harvey Levenstein put it in his book Revolution at the Table, “ of the keys to food advertising in advanced industrial countries: that once individuals ingest an adequate number of calories in their diets, most changes in food consumption will be the result of the substitution of one food for another”

Just look at all the things we can buy to eat now that didn’t exist twenty years ago. There are so many kinds of breakfast cereal that they now take up an entire aisle in most grocery markets. If you look at the ingredients, you will find they are more or less the same, just extruded into different shapes with different names and labels. In deciding whether this is truly innovative, we have to ask the question “Are we better off?” Is this year’s cereal better than last? Why has it changed? Who benefits? Given the current epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, much of which can be credited to our highly processed diets of packaged food products, it’s hard to conclude that all these new products have helped anyone other than the people selling them.

There have been huge innovations in food over the years. The ability to preserve the fruits of our harvest by canning gives us fruits and vegetables through the winter. Better ovens provide fresh tasty bread. Refrigeration, curing, pickling, smoking, and drying prevent foods from going rancid or rotten. Electric stoves are easier to cook with than open fires. Even the discovery of fire, and therefore the ability to cook, was a huge innovation in food. Instant meal bars with long, unintelligible ingredients lists might be convenient, but are they innovative? Industrialized foods like these have been concocted and packaged in so many ways that we can no longer recognise the basic ingredients they are made from. We have become so disconnected from the roots of our food that we don’t know what we are eating, but it’s obvious from our health that what we are eating isn’t good for us.

SO WHAT WOULD make a truly innovative food? It would have to be healthy, most of all. It might be more convenient to prepare without compromising the freshness and wholeness of its ingredients. It would have minimal ecological impact. And it would taste good. Near my home on the west coast of Canada, there is a bakery making bread from native varieties of wheat being grown by a local organic farmer. There are artisan cheese-makers developing cheeses from the milk of an endangered herd of buffalo. There are aboriginal people preparing medicinal teas from traditional wild herbs. These products are healthful. They benefit the ecosystems from which they come. They reconnect people with the land. They are motivated by a love for food, the earth, and well-being, and they build on traditional knowledge and biodiversity. They slow us down and make us think. And they taste fabulous. This is true innovation.

Karen Rideout is studying Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia.