Consumers are becoming more aware of where their food comes from. Whether it's concerns about the treatment of animals, the environmental impact of how food is transported or health issues stemming from pesticides, genetically-modified foods or processed foods - more people are taking the saying "you are what you eat" to heart. But eating locally and organically can be expensive, and food available in winter can be lackluster, to say the least. So, whether we like it or even know it, most of us continue to support the big food conglomerates. Here's a look at some of the largest food companies in America and their (sometimes surprising) subsidiaries. (For more, see 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
IN PICTURES: How To Make Your First $1 Million
Although calling Pepsi-Cola a "food" is disputable, PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) reaches far beyond the world of soft drinks. The company has come a long way since its founding in 1898. PepsiCo brought in $44.3 billion in revenue last year. The company owns both the Gatorade and Propel brands of sports drinks, as well as Mountain Dew and SoBe beverage brands.
But more surprising, PepsiCo owns Frito-Lay, which produces an enormous variety of snack foods, including Ruffles, Lay's, Tostitos and Fritos brands. Healthier eaters might be surprised to find out that Pepsi owns Tropicana, some lines of the TAZO juice and tea brand and Quaker - which produces such wholesome foods as oatmeal, Mother's cereal and puffed wheat. And if you're curious who's winning the long-fought cola war - Coke or Pepsi - the Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) raked in just $31 billion in 2009.
Dole Food Company (NYSE:DOLE) can pat itself on the back: It is the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetables. In 2009, the company saw revenues of approximately $6.8 billion, which is a far cry from its modest beginnings in Hawaii back in 1851. Missionaries Samuel Northrup Castle and Amos Starr Cooke founded Castle & Cooke, and they invested in seafood packing, railroad production and shipping initiatives. That company acquired James Dole's Hawaiian Pineapple Company and the Standard Fruit Company by the 1960s.
After Castle & Cooke was spun off in 1995, the produce giant moved its headquarters to Westlake Village, California. Now, Dole operates plantations all over Central America, South America and the Philippines, producing everything from bananas to pre-packaged salad mixtures to fruit cups.
IN PICTURES: 10 Ways To Cut Your Food Costs
Minnesota's General Mills (NYSE:GIS) has its fingers in a large variety of food brands - so many, in fact, that the company made a tidy $14.7 billion in sales last year. Founded in 1856, it was originally known as the Minneapolis Milling Company and didn't acquire its current name until 1928. Since then, the company has made acquisitions in clothing stores, restaurants and toys; although, it now focuses primarily on food production and marketing.
General Mills likely owns some of your favorite brands, including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Yoplait and Green Giant. On top of that, the conglomerate has ventured into the natural and organic food industry and owns Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen and Lärabar - a health-bar without gluten, soy or dairy.
When it comes to packaged foods, you can't get any bigger than Nestlé. Although its origins are found in Switzerland, the company has become the largest packaged food company in the world, and you'd be hard-pressed to not find a Nestlé product in nearly every kitchen in the nation. The company's revenue reached $110 billion last year, and you can bet all that money didn't come from selling just chocolate milk mix.
Nestlé's American brands are wide-ranging, from the candy you would expect (Gobstoppers, Pixy Stix and Laffy Taffy) to coffee (Nescafé and Taster's Choice). The company has also made a surprising number of acquisitions in the frozen pizza category, owning Digiorno, California Pizza Kitchen, Hot Pockets, Lean Pockets and Tombstone.
While Nestlé reigns king of the international food scene, Kraft (NYSE:KFT) holds the title for largest food company headquartered in the United States. Northfield, Illinois is the home of this food giant, which brought in $40.4 billion in revenues last year. The company was started in 1923, and its focus was originally on ice cream products. The company later expanded into a full range of dairy products.
Now, Kraft offers a seemingly endless range of food products. If PepsiCo has a monopoly on chips and Nestlé has a firm grip on frozen pizza, then Kraft knows its crackers: Wheat Thins, Triscuits, Ritz, Nabisco and Cheese Nips are all owned by the company. But much like its counterparts, Kraft has also made inroads in the health, diet and upscale food industries. They market South Beach Living meal replacement bars, Boca meatless products, and Grey Poupon.
The Bottom Line
If you've joined the ranks of those who are taking an interest in where their food comes from, it could be an interesting exercise to examine your own pantry. Even products that are marketed with hip branding that invokes a vibe of independence, it's likely that brand has been snatched up by one of these powerful food giants. (To learn more, see our Guide To Investing In Consumer Staples.)
For the latest financial news, see Water Cooler Finance: Ghosts Of Economies Past.