Annie’s Homegrown — From Backyard Bunny to Big Food: Behind the Label

Annie’s Homegrown is an iconic organic food brand. Now owned by multinational mega food corporation General Mills, how is the brand staying true to its roots? We go behind the label to find out.

The Good

For America’s food industry, twenty-five years isn’t an immensely long time, unless you’re talking about organics. In 1989, Annie Withey, co-founder of Annie’s Homegrown, was packaging her own mac and cheese alternatives to Kraft’s ubiquitous blue box, putting her home phone number and address on each box along with her now iconic “Rabbit of Approval” based on her pet bunny, Bernie.

Quaint as it sounds, the origins of Annie’s Homegrown are not all that unusual—scores of today’s leading natural and organic food brands were started in kitchens, garages, and backyard operations that eventually expanded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. So were some of our food giants—Hormel, Kraft, Kellogg—they all have endearing back stories, even though they may sound unbelievable now.

“Twenty-five years after our founding, the values that Annie started with still guide our company every day,” Annie’s says on its website. “We’re a mission-driven business grounded in using natural and organic ingredients to make great-tasting products that consumers love. We source ingredients only from places and people we trust. And we work hard to act as a positive role model for consumers and other businesses.”

Annie’s was one of the first natural brands to make its target so well known—the rectangle Annie’s box is the same size as the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese blue box—but it’s the contents inside that really set the brands apart. From the start, Annie’s eschewed artificial colors and flavors in its mac and cheese products. It opted instead for natural colors (or none at all) and organic ingredients whenever possible. The brand has been steadfast in its commitment to using only GMO-free ingredients, and it says it still cultivates relationships with its suppliers and farmers, even though the brand is now sold right alongside Kraft macaroni and cheese products in supermarkets all across the country.

Fast forward from Annie’s humble origins two decades and Kraft only recently announced it would be removing artificial colors from its classic mac and cheese product. It took a while, but Kraft felt the pressure Annie’s Homegrown brought to the category and the desire for transparency and clean products it helped its customers come to value and demand.

The Bad

There’s a pride in not selling out—in staying true to a company’s roots. But it’s becoming less common these days, particularly as the demand for organic and natural foods continue to rise. While numerous companies have successfully avoided succumbing to the voluminous offers, Annie’s Homegrown took one—an $820 million offer from General Mills in 2014.

The decision was not well received by Annie’s legion of fans—particularly moms. It was a backlash the company says it knew would happen.

“Big companies that own natural, organic companies…that have started to use genetically modified ingredients and other things that are very controversial with their core audience have experienced issues,” Annie’s CEO John Foraker told the Wall Street Journal about the sale. “I don’t want to talk prospectively about what could happen to Annie’s, but I would say that there is a core consumer that is increasingly focused on transparency, quality, and wants to make sure that the companies that they support are staying true to the values that they profess in their packaging and their brand position.”

While Annie’s has been a brand at the forefront of laws and petitions that support GMO labeling, General Mills hasn’t. It’s supported several coalitions that opposed state-led initiatives to require GMO labeling, a move the company says isn’t likely to change, even with the acquisition of organic brands like Annie’s. (It also owns organic brands Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen.)

“While it’s true that Annie’s has supported state-based [labeling] initiatives, and General Mills has long opposed state-based labeling, we would probably both prefer a national solution to this question to help consumers,” General Mills spokeswoman Kirstie Foster wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune after the acquisition was announced.

The national solution Foster refers to is likely the USDA’s still fuzzy plan to create a regulated “GMO-Free” label much like the current third-party non-GMO certification offered by The Non-GMO Project. It would override any national (or state) programs intended to force manufacturers to disclose genetically modified ingredients in foods—highlighting instead brands or products that don’t contain any GMOs. While it’s a step toward greater clarity about what is or isn’t in our food, critics of the label say it would give food giants an easy out from having to declare the presence of genetically modified ingredients.

Annie’s may be best known for its macaroni and cheese products, but the company has branched out into numerous other kid categories—crackers, cookies, and fruit snacks. Earlier this year, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Welch’s fruit snacks alleging they were just “glorified gummy bears.” And while Annie’s wasn’t named in the lawsuit, Jezebel pointed to problems with the brand’s organic gummy fruit snacks: “The Bernie’s Farm flavor of Annie’s Fruit Snacks is worse [than Welch’s], composed of 48 percent sugar.”

The Takeaway

Not all food products are created equal. Annie’s Homegrown offers cleaner products than big(ger) conventional brands—and they’re products beloved by both hungry kids and discerning moms (and dads). But the brand has come a long way from its origin–even if it still values organic, quality ingredients–it’s now part of a multinational food conglomerate and that changes things, even when brands say it doesn’t. While the products may be great in a pinch—a snack on the go or a quick dinner fix—there really is no substitute for home-cooked meals.

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Annie’s image via JeepersMedia