When Nestle made the decision to change its iconic Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese to include more fresh and recognizable ingredients, company executives knew they had to proceed cautiously or risk alienating some key customers.
Launched by Nestle more than 60 years ago, macaroni and cheese has become one of the most popular items in the Stouffer's line, and diehard buyers of the product would likely have reacted negatively to a change that disrupted their beloved meal.
But at the same time, as consumers look to products with fresher, simpler and more recognizable ingredients, many companies such as Nestle have little choice but to change, sometimes significantly, what has worked in their products for decades — all part of a process that can be challenging and time-consuming.
“It took us a lot longer than we thought," Kelly Malley, director of marketing for Nestle USA's food division, told Food Dive. "It was a big effort by the team to achieve a real simple ingredient list without sacrificing any of the taste that consumers have grown over the years to know and love.”
Before Nestle started to make changes to the macaroni and cheese itself, executives looked at the recipe and identified what consumers associated with the product, such as its taste, texture or the way it felt in their mouth, as well as what words on the label they were likely not familiar with that needed to be removed.
“It took us a lot longer than we thought. It was a big effort by the team to achieve a real simple ingredient list without sacrificing any of the taste that consumers have grown over the years to know and love.”
Director of marketing, Nestle USA's food division
Soon after, the company's own chefs met with food scientists, ingredient specialists and its product suppliers to discuss new recipes that included these changes but mirrored the original item as much as possible. Only the most promising concoctions were selected for a side-by-side taste test with the old and reformulated recipes placed in front of occasional buyers of the product as well as diehards — defined as those who consume it at least once a week.
Malley said 15 recipes — some versions failed because they didn't have the same creaminess enjoyed by the consumer — and a few rounds of testing later, Nestle found the version it rolled out to shoppers in January 2017. The ingredient list is now shorter and simpler with artificial colors, flavors and preservatives removed.
Nestle focused on ingredients in its Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese commonly found in the home, such as freshly made pasta, cheddar cheese and skim milk. One part of the recipe overhaul included replacing margarine with butter.
"This as an opportunity to deliver against our consumers’ needs, and it was a lot of work,” Malley said. “For us, it was a very disciplined approach to make sure we felt really confident with what we were going to put in the marketplace before we launched it, so it might have taken us a little bit longer than we hoped, but we felt very good about (it) ... based on consumer feedback.”
The results so far have been promising. Nestle said ingredient changes, such as what took place with its macaroni and cheese, have led to a positive response from shoppers.
“For the mac and cheese, it was nice to see that the consumer was really excited, that they felt it was fresher and they felt better about the offering," Malley said.
More than a trend
Food companies improved the health profile of about 180,000 products in 2016, an increase of more than 100,000 items from the prior year, according to the Consumer Goods Forum.
The reason is simple: More consumers are loading up their shopping carts with healthier, fresher produce. And even when they eat ice cream, cereal or macaroni and cheese, they want a slimmed-down roster of ingredients they recognize and can pronounce.
Innova research estimates 75% of U.S. consumers claim to read the ingredient labels of food products, while 91% believe those containing recognizable items are healthier. In 2014, Nielsen revealed more than 60% of U.S. consumers cited a lack of artificial colors and flavors as an important factor when making food purchases at the store.
The process to overhaul a product isn't easy, and in some cases companies have decided, at least temporarily, not to move forward with a cleaner label.
Hershey, which announced in 2015 that it would use simpler ingredients in many of its candies like its popular chocolate bars and Kisses, has struggled to recreate vibrant reds, greens and other colors that give its Jolly Ranchers hard candies their signature brightness without using artificial colors. In other cases, the limited availability of certain natural ingredients like vanilla or the color blue can be a challenge — a problem the sweets maker is confident will be rectified as more food companies turn to clean labels and suppliers boost their output.
General Mills also moved forward with its own initiative, announcing in 2016 that it reformulated Trix and six other cereals as part of its pledge to remove artificial colors and flavors from all of its cereal brands. In September, it decided to bring back the classic Trix cereal after consumers complained about its healthier update, with some calling the natural colors depressing.
The challenge for General Mills came when food scientists tried to remove artificial colors and flavors. They were not able to duplicate the bright red, neon blue and green colors with fruit and vegetable juices. In addition, some consumers claimed the natural colors changed the flavor of the cereal.
Mmm mmm healthy
Campbell Soup is famous for a product that is part of the company's name. So when it announced in 2015 that it would remove artificial colors and flavors from nearly all of its North American products, one of the first places it started was with the more than 120 frozen soups sold to foodservice customers — ranging from Wisconsin Cheddar and Wicked Thai Style Chicken and Rice to Lobster Bisque with Sherry and Hearty Beef Chili with Beans.
"If there was an opportunity to add protein, vegetables and vitamins, we did it. If there was an additive that didn’t belong, we removed it," Kevin Matier, general manager of Campbell Soup’s North America Foodservice, told Food Dive in an email. "Every ingredient was carefully selected."
The company took a similar path toward developing a cleaner label. After doing a thorough review of its customers and meeting with supply partners to better understand what people wanted as far as taste, nutrition and what potential changes were possible, Campbell Soup combed through each recipe and ingredient.
During a process lasting two years, there was one uniform mandate. It had to meet Campbell Soup's definition of "real food" — meaning it contained no additives; artificial colors, flavors or preservatives; monosodium glutamate or high fructose corn syrup. In their place, Campbell Soup added ingredients popular with consumers, including vitamins, protein, fiber and antibiotic-free chicken. In some cases, changes were made to the cooking process. In Campbell Soup's chili, the ingredients are now added in a specific order and the product is cooked 50% longer to improve the flavor and make the beef more tender.
"There were significant challenges throughout, but it allowed us to get creative and think out of the box to come to solutions."
General manager, Campbell Soup’s North America Foodservice
In Campbell Soup's popular New England Clam Chowder, the food manufacturer more than doubled the amount of sustainably sourced clams, touted fresh sauteed onions, salt pork and potatoes, and added 34% more cream and whole milk. Several ingredients were removed, including yeast extract, cultured dextrose and whey protein — leaving behind a soup with a cleaner and simpler profile that the company says tastes homemade.
But the overhaul wasn't without its share of challenges. Not only was the company undertaking the arduous task of improving more than 120 frozen soups almost simultaneously, but it had to make sure the ingredient changes didn't make the product too expensive for its customers.
The Beef Pot Roast soup is a prime example. Campbell Soup removed two different kinds of beef used in the original recipe and replaced them with a higher-grade sous vide beef. But it was able to keep the cost the same by eliminating artificial flavors and adding the juices from the beef back into the broth.
Campbell Soup doesn't have specific sales data from the changes, but said its customers are pleased with the results and the feedback so far has been positive.
"There were significant challenges throughout, but it allowed us to get creative and think out of the box to come to solutions," Matier said.