Boxed cake mix is a pantry staple for everybody who likes to bake but has limited time or budget. Retailing at around $1.50 per box and requiring very few supplementary ingredients, Pillsbury Cake Mix is quick, easy, and reliable. You know you’ll always get a fluffy, moist cake with half the effort of a homemade one. While this cake mix is delicious, however, it may not be the most environmentally friendly or sustainable option. Pillsbury and their parent company General Mills have made strides towards sustainable practices such as sustainably sourcing priority ingredients and pushing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, they also show a concerning lack of transparency and traceability in where their ingredients are actually coming from.
The Pillsbury Cake Mix contains the standard ingredients for most cakes—flour, leavening agents, and sugars. While there is no indication of where these are sourced on the Pillsbury website, the General Mills website claims that many of their ingredients are now 100% sustainably sourced, including wheat, sugarcane, and dry-milled corn. Wheat, sugarcane and corn are likely the source of the flour, sugar, and dextrose found in the cake mix, so we could hope that those three key ingredients have been sustainably sourced. This is an impressive effort towards sustainability by General Mills. However, even with this effort, there is still not much traceability for where exactly these ingredients are being sourced. Especially at the product level, there is no information on where each of the ingredients for the cake mix are really coming from—we just need to take General Mill’s word for it that their sustainable policy is being upheld for Pillsbury. It is also notable that the biggest component of this cake mix—the flour—is bleached flour. Even if the wheat of the flour is sustainably sourced, the extra processing required to bleach and enrich the flour has a larger carbon footprint than unbleached flour, all just for an aesthetic difference. Furthermore, the bleaching process consists of chemical treatments which can be hazardous to the environment and human health, including potassium bromate and chlorine dioxide.
In addition to those key ingredients found in every cake, Pillsbury box cake mix also includes several additives including glycol esters of fatty acids and sodium stearoyl lactylate. These additives are common in processed foods to act as emulsifiers and improve shelf life. Sodium stearoyl lactylate has been shown to be hazardous to aquatic environments. Because this compound is only found in small proportions in the cake mix itself, and the product is meant to be consumed, it won’t typically be introduced into aquatic environments with normal use. However, it does raise questions about the production and manufacturing practices of this compound and whether it’s safely handled. Overall, Pillsbury should be more transparent about where each of their ingredients is coming from. They can also use their platform as a household name to enact a more widespread change about how we perceive our foods. There’s currently a standard that flour should be white just for the aesthetic—Pillsbury is in a position to challenge this standard and confront the process of chemical flour bleaching altogether.
The last component of this product is the packaging. The powder cake mix is encased in a plastic bag, which is also packaged in a cardboard box. The cardboard box is recyclable, but the plastic bag inside of it is not. In order to reduce their environmental impact, General Mills could greatly benefit from revamping their packaging. One option could be to switch to a biodegradable plastic alternative. Another alternative is to ditch the plastic altogether and sell the cake mix in the recyclable cardboard encasing only. I think they should also emphasize the importance of recycling the packaging on the box itself, instead of leaving the burden on the consumer to look it up.
There is very little information available on how the cake mix specifically is manufactured. While Pillsbury has no independent information on worker’s rights and treatment, their parent company General Mills has dedicated sections to workplace safety and employee well-being on their website and their global responsibility report. Even with their claims that they’re committed to treating their employees well, however, there have still been some complaints. Despite their record profits in 2020, they claimed they couldn’t afford to pay workers at an Australian factory. In June of 2021, General Mills begrudgingly agreed to raise their wages, but only after 6 months of negotiations and 3 weeks of the workers going on strike. This incident may demonstrate that General Mills does not care about the wellbeing of their employees as much as they claim they do. This is just one incident, but it begs the question of whether other employees are being underpaid or mistreated in other factories but just haven’t gained media attention or don’t have union rights.
Pillsbury’s parent company is General Mills, which has made many commitments towards sustainability and global responsibility. For example, in 2013 they promised to 100% sustainably source its priority ingredients by 2020—and they’ve achieved that goal. Furthermore, they are continuing to make environmental goals such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I think this goal is very achievable, but it may be too late. With the rapidly expanding current climate crisis, large corporations like General Mills should be much more radical in their environmental goals. With sustainable alternatives to energy sources and manufacturing processes available, there should be no delay in switching over.
Overall, it’s refreshing to see that a large company like General Mills has made an effort towards sustainability and preventing climate change. From the General Mills website, it’s clear that they acknowledge the current environmental situation and are trying to adopt sustainable practices, however performative those may be. However, there’s very little information available on how these sustainable practices are being implemented and enforced into their individual brands such as Pillsbury. From just the Pillsbury website, there is absolutely no mention of sustainability or any traceability with the ingredients at all. I recommend General Mills to make more of an effort to show how their sustainable practices are being incorporated into all their brands and products. Additionally, I recommend them to become even more aggressive and quicker in their sustainable practices and goals to show a true commitment to sustainability.
Product Link: https://www.pillsburybaking.com/products/moist-supreme/golden-butter