"Artificial: Public Enemy No. 1" is one of Mintel's top food trends for 2016. "Consumer demands for natural and ‘less processed’ food and drink are forcing companies to remove artificial ingredients."
Daniel Levine, trends expert and Director of The Avant-Guide Institute, agrees. He points out that from the consumer's perspective it's not about specific names of ingredients but about categories, especially about unpronounceable ingredients, synthetic colorings, and artificial preservatives. "We will be seeing fewer of those," says Levine.
In the past, food manufacturers used ingredients because they were beneficial to the manufacturer, the distributors or the warehouses, not necessarily because the ingredients were beneficial for the consumers. "We're at an inflection point where this is changing," says Levine. However, he also points out, "Whether something has been proven good or bad for you is irrelevant; it's all about consumer perception."
Food manufactures are responding
Levine says these changes do sometimes upset manufacturers, a point also made by the Wall Street Journal: "The new environment is frustrating for some in the food industry after decades of technological advances to make packaged food cheaper, longer lasting and more flavorful."
David Garfield, head of the consumer products practice at consulting firm AlixPartners, told the Journal, "A lot of consumers think they can just swap this for that, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. As soon as you tinker with one thing, that affects another, and you’re trying to keep everyone happy." Another challenge is that natural food colors are less stable and cost more than artificial colors.
Companies already making changes include Schwan Food Company, which announced in October removal of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), artificial dyes, artificial flavors and high-fructose corn syrup from the company's food portfolio. General Mills is removing artificial flavors and colors from fruit snacks and cereals. Gorton's Seafood is moving to simpler ingredients, while Kraft has reformulated Mac & Cheese.
Other big companies are following consumer demand through acquisitions. Examples include Pinnacle Food's acquisition of Boulder Brands, General Mill's acquisition of Annie's, and Mondelez's acquisition of Enjoy Life Snacks.
However, not everyone agrees all artificial ingredients are on the way out. Paul Manning, president and CEO of Sensient Technologies, told Food Dive earlier this year that he believes performance requirements of certain products may require some synthetic components. "Although the demand for natural ingredients will continue to grow, I think there will always be a need for a certain amount of what may be described as synthetic ingredients."
'Less is more'
"Look for an emphasis on 'less is more,' according to The SupermarketGuru’s 2016 Trend Predictions from Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com. "28% of shoppers want minimal processing and one-quarter say they want a short list of ingredients." What's short? Lempert says, based on consumer panels, five appears to be the magic number of ingredients.
Even regional grocery chains with private label brands see the consumer trends. Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of Stew Leonard's, a Connecticut and New York grocery chain, said in an email that, based on customer suggestions, the company is working "to clean up our labels and get rid of five specific ingredients that customers seem to mention the most often: dyes, MSG, aspartame, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup." Of course, the FDA has mandated the removal of PHOs as a source of trans fat.
Where consumers are heading
Levine says terms like fresh, organic, local, small-batch, artisanal, and craft are keywords pulling consumers in a particular direction. "If consumers can connect labels to this language, that's where companies will see success."
An opinion piece in the New York Times goes a step further, saying, "For legacy food companies to have any hope of survival, they will have to make bold changes in their core product offerings. Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings."