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Crusader With a Wooden Spoon

Baker Paul Stitt battles junk food, squishy white bread, gooey rolls, and corporate giants

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 1994



MANITOWOC, WIS.

WHEN food scientist Paul Stitt launched his career in the 1960s, he hoped to feed the world. But he soon found himself playing a second role - as an outspoken critic of companies that put profits ahead of good nutrition.

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Mr. Stitt's targets: Soft-drink firms that lace beverages with caffeine; snack manufacturers that load foods with fat and salt; cerealmakers that use huge quantities of sugar.

Caffeine, salt, fat, sugar, and other additives are what food companies call ``natural flavors,'' but what Stitt terms ``appetite enhancers.'' When added to recipes, they encourage overeating by chemically creating a false sense of hunger, he says.

Taking on the giants

Stunned by what he learned working at large companies, Stitt took on corporate America at its own game. Here in Manitowoc, on the shores of Lake Michigan, he is producing nutrition-rich natural foods.

It's been over 20 years since Stitt, a biochemist, fell out with the Quaker Oats Company, where he was working as a product-development specialist. One of his assignments there was to create a soy-protein breakfast bar.

As Stitt tells it, he was too successful. His bar was so filling that consumers were satisfied after eating just one. He was ordered to drop the project - sales would be too unprofitable.

Quaker spokesman Ron Bottrell says he doesn't want to refight that old battle with Stitt. But Mr. Bottrell notes that Quaker got its start in 1877 with whole-grain cereal, and today it annually sells $404 million worth of minimally processed natural hot cereals like oatmeal.

Eventually, Stitt was fired by Quaker and blackballed by other food companies. Jobless and frustrated, he decided to go it alone. He challenged the giant creators of sugared cereals, Twinkies, Oreos, and squishy white bread by launching his own bakery here in Manitowoc.

The results? Today, with 165 employees, his Natural Ovens of Manitowoc daily turns out 20,000 loaves of bread.

These are dense, nutritious loaves, such as his Garden Bread, made of whole wheat, flax seed, shredded carrots, and sunflower meal. There are moist Blueberry-Oat Muffins that are 27-percent blueberries, along with whole wheat, oat bran, flax seed, arrowroot - and more than 5 grams of fiber per muffin.

Thousands of people in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota are discovering Stitt's whole-grain breads, rolls, and muffins. Sales have climbed to $9 million through 1,100 grocery stores and mail orders.

Walking through the Natural Ovens bakery with Stitt and his wife, Barbara, one quickly realizes that for them, this is, as he puts it, ``a ministry, a calling, a mission.''

Company mission

Stitt laments the way many Americans eat, and what he calls the greed of many large food companies that exploit false appetites. He observes: ``It's against the law to sell a dog food unless it is nutritional. But there's no such law for human foods, and I feel there should be.''

When working for major corporations on new food products, Stitt says he found that ``if you make it nutritional, then people eat less. And to a food company, that's harmful. To me, as a nutritionist, that's an improvement. So that's our mission here, to make the foods as filling and satisfying as possible so that people can't overeat.''