How Big Food has cleaned up its labeling act
As consumers demand products that are healthier, major food makers are removing everything from preservatives and artificial colors and flavors to sugars and trans fats — key additives that give products a specific taste, look, or allow them to stay fresher longer.
While companies overhaul their ingredient list, they need to be careful not to take away the very attributes that shoppers associate with their favorite product — or they risk irreparably damaging brand loyalty and ceding market share to a competitor.
Once the decision is made to reformulate a product, the company must decide how it should undertake a process that can be difficult, lengthy and potentially costly. They also must determine how to communicate what they're doing with the public. Is it smarter to be open and transparent and tell consumers what changes are coming and why? Or should the manufacturer just go ahead and make the changes and stay silent until the cleaner-label product is firmly established in the market?
Food Dive reached out to major food companies that have overhauled their often iconic products in recent years to see how the rollouts went, the response from customers and how their outreach strategies worked.
Nestle paves the way
When Nestle committed in February 2015 to removing artificial colors and flavors from its chocolate candy by the end the year, it publicly announced the decision and told consumers it was the first manufacturer to do so. The Swiss company, known for a roster of confections including Crunch and Baby Ruth, replaced Red 40 and Yellow 5 in its Butterfinger crunchy center with annatto, a food coloring sourced from seeds taken from the achiote tree. It also replaced artificial vanillin in its popular Crunch bar with the genuine ingredient.
“We know that candy consumers are interested in broader food trends around fewer artificial ingredients," Doreen Ida, president of Nestle USA Confections & Snacks, said in making the announcement. "As we thought about what this means for our candy brands, our first step has been to remove artificial flavors and colors without affecting taste or increasing the price.”
For a huge food company like Nestle to take such a major step made an impression on the public and others in the industry, according to one expert. The company was seen as being more responsive to the growing consumer demand for products made with natural ingredients.
"The idea of [Nestle] announcing it is actually a good one," Joseph Downing, head of the U.S. Food & Beverage practice at investment bank Alantra, told Food Dive. "They're basically saying, 'Hey, consumer, you want natural and clean label-friendly ingredients, and we've decided internally that for the next several years we've agreed to reformulate.' I think that's a positive story."
The chocolate giant went further by announcing in December 2016 that it had engineered a natural way to restructure the sugar molecule, enabling manufacturers to use up to 40% less of the ingredient without reducing the sweetness of their products. Nestle is currently patenting this faster-dissolving sugar, and plans to roll out confectionery products made with it next year.
Kraft quietly makes a change
Kraft Heinz took a different tack when it decided to change the recipe for its iconic macaronic and cheese by removing artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. The changes included replacing the Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 dyes with natural coloring from paprika, annatto and turmeric.
Kraft initially announced the move in April 2015, a few months before completing its merger with Heinz, but deliberately said nothing about it until after the newly reformulated product hit shelves in December. These ingredient changes often take time, especially when the brand is so well-known, according to a company spokesperson.
"For our fans, we could not compromise on the product’s taste and look," Lynne Galia, Kraft Heinz's head of communications for U.S. brands, told Food Dive in an email. "So until we were confident that we had the right recipe with no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes, we were not going to change the product. We worked on these improvements for well over three years, connecting and testing with our fans every step of the way."
"For our fans, we could not compromise on the product’s taste and look. We worked on these improvements for well over three years, connecting and testing with our fans every step of the way."
Head of communications for U.S. brands at Kraft Heinz
Kraft Heinz took a gamble in its promotional and marketing approach when it introduced the new product, calling it the world's largest "blind taste test." Company executives said the decision was one of the biggest bets it had ever made, and consumers rewarded its risk-taking decision by snapping up more than 50 million boxes of the reformulated version in the first few months they were available.
"Since we knew that the new product tasted just as good as the old, we decided not to immediately shout the recipe change from the rooftops until March 2016 because we wanted fans to experience it for themselves without being prompted," Galia said. "We wanted them to be pleasantly surprised that their iconic Kraft Macaroni & Cheese they’ve been eating for months not only had no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes, but still had the great taste they were used to."
Kraft Heinz officially announced the formula changes in March 2016 with print and television ads that playfully read, “We’d invite you to try it, but you already have.” The food giant also encouraged macaroni and cheese fans to post on social media their reaction using the hashtag #didntnotice in exchange for a chance at free giveaways.
Food companies shouldn't try to keep their product reformulations from consumers, Downing said. "I don't think it's something that should be hidden, muffled or disguised. Just say that, 'We know you love this product, but we're going to change it to make it better.' "
General Mills slips up with Trix
Within months of Kraft announcing that changes were coming to its macaroni and cheese products, General Mills decided to phase out artificial flavors and colors in some of its cereals. Trix was one of the popular brands singled out for a color makeover, with fruit and vegetable juices and spice extracts filling in its new palette.
But after launching the new version of Trix last year, General Mills found itself facing a customer backlash. Fans called the natural colors drab and even depressing, and despite the consumer trend toward fewer artificial additives in food, Trix fans lobbied the company to bring back the old formula.
"Consumers have differing food preferences, and we heard from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal," Mike Siemienas, spokesman for General Mills, told Food Dive in an email.
"We are always listening to our consumers, and we continually innovate and renovate our products to insure we’re meeting consumer preferences. Not everyone likes the same thing — and that’s perfectly ok."
Spokesman for General Mills,
During the process of removing the cereal's artificial colors and flavors, the company's food scientists were unable to duplicate the bright red, neon blue and green hues with fruit and vegetable juices. In addition, consumers claimed these natural ingredients changed the flavor of the cereal. Following the backlash, General Mills made the decision to bring back "Classic Trix" in October.
"We will continue to offer our current formulation of Trix with no artificial flavors and no colors from artificial sources — which has its own fan base — along with Classic Trix, so both products will be available for consumers," Siemienas said.
Despite the challenges, General Mills seems to have no regrets about its decision to change Trix.
"We are always listening to our consumers, and we continually innovate and renovate our products to insure we’re meeting consumer preferences. Not everyone likes the same thing — and that’s perfectly ok," he added.
Downing believes that General Mills may have missed out on an opportunity to let customers learn more about why certain additives aren't good for them.
"If it's going to be a little bit of a different color, people can get used to that and not put chemicals in their body. Maybe their advertising campaign should have done more to educate people," he said.
For some shoppers, it may be a more a matter of preference than of education. In 2016, more than 60% of U.S. consumers said they considered whether a product contained artificial colors when making purchases. But it turns out that in some cases, what consumers say they want and what they actually buy can be remarkably different.