Within days of Nelson Peltz disclosing a 3% stake in Cadbury Schweppes earlier this year, the drinks and confectionery giant announced plans to break itself in two.

Todd Stitzer, Cadbury's CEO, maintained the idea had been in train for months, but the timing said otherwise and few in the industry believed him, accusing him of caving into pressure from Peltz, a renowned US corporate raider. But the Cadbury's experience is far from unique.

Robert Schofield, the CEO of Premier Foods, and by our own estimation the most powerful man in British food and drink manufacturing, found himself trumped by a private equity consortium when Blackstone and PAI paid £1.6bn to steal UB, his former alma mater, from under his nose. Permira also got in the act last year, buying Birds Eye from Unilever for £1.25bn, a sum that none of the trade buyers were prepared to even come close to matching.

At Sainsbury's and Mitchells & Butlers, meanwhile, another investor of enormous financial clout is also angling for change. Robert Tchenguiz, already the owner of a 20% stake in Somerfield, stubbornly refuses to leave either the supermarket group or the pubs operator alone, arguing that the boards must listen to his plans to extract cash from their sprawling property portfolios. All the time, as with Peltz at Cadbury's, there is the threat that he could launch an all-out takeover bid if he doesn't get his way.

But there are now countless other financial muscle-men involved in food and drink. And, as they reshape the industry, it is impossible to ignore the power and influence they hold.

Although Sir Terry Leahy and other conventional powerbrokers still wield considerable power, the possibility of a private equity ownership of a leading British supermarket was foiled only at the 11th hour. Anyone and everyone is now a target. And while the money men at the KKR-led consortium may have gone away to lick their wounds, swooping on Alliance Boots, they will be back, says Luke Jensen, head of retail and consumer at OC&C: "The recent deals are a signal of private equity's interest in the sector. It has entered the food and drink industry in a serious way and is looking to lead a restructuring. Their knowledge is constantly increasing, as are their funds. They are seeking to acquire several players in the same market, oftentriggering waves of asset sales. Private equity groups are targeting undermanaged businesses or groups that want to offload peripheral assets."

The new order has been created partly by a more dynamic and arguably more daring business model. As Philip Yea, chief executive of 3i, says "While it may seem unfair that the private equity model has the advantage, that surely is capitalism and those with the advantage win."

But the greatest reason is cash. After a sustained period of low interest rates across the world, surging oil revenues and the growth in emerging markets of Eastern Europe, India and Asia, private equity is flush with it.

Food and drink has long been a key target. It was the assault on US foods monster RJR Nabisco that immortalised, in Tom Wolfe's classic book about Wall Street - Barbarians at the Gate, the best-known description of these money men.

And grocery manufacturing and supply remains a key target for these "barbarians" because it ticks several boxes: a staple product; good cashflow; established brands that are often under-appreciated by their owners (or, to use the City word, "orphaned", and therefore ripe for exploitation); and an often highly fragmented sector comprising plenty of small, family-owned enterprises looking to sell.

The result is that virtually the entire branded contents of the weekly shopping basket now belong, ultimately, to a private equity or some other form of finance house. And, as we've seen, it's prepared to take on retailers, too.

With the possible exception of Tchenguiz, the names of these money men are not familiar, their faces even less so. As one player put it when politely declining a picture: "It's called 'private' equity for a reason."

So let's kick off our list with the main players: the barbarians who are turning the old, established order upside down.