Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the walls of the big-food industry? Well, that's something local industry-insider-turned-author Bruce Bradley knows a little about.
Bradley, who lives in Minneapolis, has spent over 15 years working as a marketing executive for some of the biggest food companies in America. We recently sat down with him to discuss his background, the industry, and his new fiction novel, a thriller that takes place within the realm of big food (and right here in Minneapolis).
Hot Dish:Let's start where all stories start, at the beginning. Can you tell us a little about your background?
Bruce Bradley: For over 15 years I worked in the food industry. I worked for food companies like Nabisco, Pillsbury, and General Mills. Food's always been my passion. I've just always been interested in cooking, and it lead to a natural interest in marketing and selling food. I've worked on a number of big businesses, like Progresso Soup, Hamburger Helper, and Pillsbury desserts, and about four years ago I decided to leave big food and marketing. My dad was ill, and to be honest, after doing it for 15 years, it becomes a little bit like groundhogs days. It's the same thing over and over again. I was also increasingly questioning what I was doing -- what's the legacy that I'm going to leave here with? Have I sold more cases of some processed food? I've also always had a desire to write a book, and researching and trying to figure out more how I felt about the quality of our food and the direction of our food system made me question more and more do I really believe in the food that's basically feeding western culture, and I began to start seeing a lot of problems.
HD:Are you originally from Minnesota/Minneapolis?
Bradley: I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then I went to school in North Carolina. I went to a small little liberal arts school there called Davidson, and then I went to business school at Duke. After working for Nabisco for about four years, I moved up here to work for Pillsbury.
HD: You mentioned that you wanted to write a book, but you started a blog first [BruceBradley.com]. What were your goals with the blog?
Bradley: The blog started about a year, year and a half ago. It was about a good three years after I left the world of processed food. I had done more and more research about what's in our food and how it's marketed, and as much as anything got distanced. When you're working in a company or any organization, you tend to get some groupthink going on, and you don't question as much maybe as you should. So as I did more and more research, I felt like the average person doesn't stand a shot at knowing what's really in their food. So I felt an interesting way to help people learn more about what's in their food was to blog about it. Having a food insider's perspective, I can take an ingredient list or a product -- or I think what a lot of my followers like is how I talk about advertising, because I can take an ad and show how something innocent, that sounds so wonderful, really isn't that good for you. It's sort of lifting the curtain on what's really going on.
HD: In your recent Halloween post, you talk about how products used for "natural flavors" include the anal glads of beavers and something referred to as beetle juice. Some people seem fine knowing there are weird ingredients in their foods, but do they really know just how weird it can get?
Bradley: I really think people know very little. When you're buying a cookie or some bread, you easily have some reference as to how they're made, and they assume that what they buy in the store is pretty much close to that, maybe with some preservatives. But what they don't realize is that the ingredients used in most of our processed foods are highly processed. I mean, that's where it gets it's name from. Even though it might have a lemon flavoring or vanilla flavor, that flavor, even if it says it's natural, may not be from a natural vanilla source. It may be from something like castoreum, which are the beaver anal glands. It's those type of things that get people scratching their heads, asking if they really know what's in their foods. That post is a little sensational, but it serves a point. Most of those things on that list are more gross than dangerous, but it does point out that you really don't know what's in your food, and maybe you should be asking these questions.
HD: One of the biggest questions on people's minds these days is should they be afraid of what's in their food? Is there cause to worry?
Bradley: I think our food system right now is designed to prevent immediate fatalities. It's not going to kill you on the spot. I think that's where most of the focus is, and even then we're having more and more recalls -- I mean constant recalls around beef and all different types of processed foods -- so even that system is somewhat broken. To have a true understanding of what our bodies were meant to eat and what would make them thrive the most, that's not what the processed food industry is about. They have lots of claims around, "This is healthy and good for you," but usually, when you strip it down, those claims are only hanging on by a thread or two.
HD: When it comes to finding good information on food, we live in a world full of Mark Bittmans who seem to have an endless stream of horrifying facts about the food system. Where can the average person go to find good and credible information on the food they're eating?
Bradley: Well, Mark Bittman is a good source. As much as anything you have to recognize the source. So Mark Bittman, Michael Pollen are excellent sources of information, but they have a specific point of view. I think my blog can help a little bit. I try to talk about specific products, and I try to break it down in a little bit more common and down-to-earth terms. I think as this food movement grows, we need to build more bridges, and we need to fill in those stones that lead to a path that, yes, there's these people that know tremendous amounts of information that can be really useful, but how can I start my food journey, and how can I, step by step, improve what I'm eating and improve what I'm feeding my family. Because without that, it's going to be more of an elitist thing and not something that's embraced by everyday people.
HD: So, how does one make the leap from the world of nonfiction, which deals with some really serious information, to the world of fiction?
Bradley: You know, they say that when you follow your passions, that it always leads to interesting places. I've always enjoyed reading. I've always enjoyed writing, and I've always found thrillers as an interesting way, if done well, of entertaining while also informing about a subject that you might not necessarily have thought about. It makes you think about something in a new way. When I left General Mills and I had always wanted to write this book, I thought it would be an interesting world to bring to life. The processed-food world with people that say the food is great for you and the people that are saying it's going to kill you. I wanted to bring that to life. In following that passion I sort of merged my food passion with my writing passion and created this thriller called Fat Profits, that clearly illustrates that the food industry that feeds us, their No. 1 goal is making money. It's not about making sure the public health is well served. My book brings that to life in a dramatic way. There are tons of people that aren't going to pick up Michael Pollen's latest book. They're not going to read the latest study on what eating too much sugar is going to do to you. I think that Fat Profits, in a fun and entertaining way, can help. At the end of it, they'll go, "Do we really know what's in our food, and is it really that good for me?".
HD: Can you give us a synopsis of the book?
Bradley: It all happens in Minneapolis. It's about a corrupt food company. You know, Wall Street puts incredible amounts of pressure on these publicly held companies. It's about quarter-to-quarter profits and whether long-term this company is growing. So this is about a corrupt food company that starts caving in to Wall Street demands, and to meet the demands they start to cut some corners. They do some dishonest things about some of their new products in their product lines. It basically shows what lengths some could go to to make some fat profits.
HD: After this, do you think you'll try going back to nonfiction and publishing an industry tell-all?
Bradley: I've got some thoughts for a nonfiction book. There are tons of nonfiction books out there, and in order to do that I would really want it to be unique. The things that trouble me in the food industry aren't Deep Throat, evil type things. They're more errors in judgment and people losing their way while trying to chase after profits. It's not that these people are evil, it's just that over time I think you lose your perspective. I'm just not sure if there's enough exciting or titillating information for it to be the tell-all that maybe people would expect or want, but who knows, it might happen.
HD: Do you think you could be the Midwest's Mark Bittman?
Bradley: [laughs] You know, that's setting my sights really high. I have found that doing food advocacy work is really -- food is a passion, and it's also helping people. I think there's a lot of people out there who are just throwing up their hands and giving up. One story says this and one story says that, and it's all so confusing. I'm hopeful that I can be an encouraging and informative voice out there that can provide some relatively simple answers on how people can eat healthy.