Consumers who believe that certain chemicals used for additives, artificial colors and/or flavors are harmful and shouldn't be allowed in foods and beverages can sometimes make life difficult for food scientists, according to The Wall Street Journal.
For example, one in 10 young adults wants to see dihydrogen monoxide — otherwise known as water — banned from foods and beverages, according to a research study on misinformation from InsightsNow cited by the paper.
As manufacturers respond to shifting consumer views about chemicals, scientists are having to refine and reformulate recipes to jettison ingredients people no longer want in their foods and beverages. Scientists are being told to get rid of some ingredients because people can't pronounce them even if they help cut down on spoilage, contamination and costs.
The food industry is increasingly having to grapple with consumer complaints about chemicals even when some people don’t know what they are — like dihydrogen monoxide — or how to pronounce them. The InsightsNow research sought to examine the links between digital media behavior and attitudes toward food. It also looked to better understand millennial consumers and how they differ in their reactions to food misinformation.
But millennials aren't the only people who want more information about their food before they buy. According to market research firm IRI and the Food Marketing Institute, consumers of all ages want more information about food products and whether they contain antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides or fertilizers. They're also willing to pay more for those foods viewed as sustainable, organic and healthy. From 2016 to 2017, sales of meat with no antibiotics jumped 45% and comprised 10% of all meat sales last year — even if the price was higher.
Some food scientists have tougher assignments than simply making foods "free-from" a long list of additives, though. Mars has committed to removing artificial colors from its M&Ms, Skittles and other candy products by 2021, a task that has proven challenging, according to The Wall Street Journal. To make the deadline, Mars food scientists have been trying different food sources to see if they can approximate the bright red color of Skittles without using artificial dye Red 40. So far, nothing has proved satisfactory, and the company is considering marketing a less-bright but cleaner-label Skittles along with the Red 40 variety.
General Mills faced a similar problem with Trix. The cereal maker reformulated Trix in 2016 as part of its pledge to remove artificial colors and flavors from all of its cereal brands. But last year, it decided to bring back the classic Trix cereal after consumers complained about its healthier update, with some calling the natural colors depressing.
Another issue for the industry is that the Food and Drug Administration requires certain ingredients to be listed by their chemical names. The synthetic form of vitamin B12, for example, is sometimes shown by the less-appealing name cyanocobalamin. Food makers might have an easier time getting their products accepted by picky consumers if FDA were to loosen those rules, but that isn't likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, shopper outreach explaining exactly what is in products and why may be the best strategy.
Food and beverage manufacturers will need to continue adapting to keep up with consumer trends. But there's one segment clearly benefiting from the negative view of chemical additives in foods and beverages, and that's the organic industry. Products certified as having no antibiotics, no artificial colors, no GMOs and no synthetic pesticides jumped 6.4% last year to a record $45.2 billion in sales, according to the 20th annual Organic Trade Association industry survey. Organic products now make up 5.5% of the total retail food market in the U.S.
Removing some chemicals can be a daunting and expensive endeavor. Food manufacturers need to make sure the product has the same taste, texture, appearance and mouthfeel or else consumers won't want to buy it. For now, it appears that as consumers demand cleaner labels with ingredients they can pronounce, manufacturers will need to keep slimming down the list of what goes into their products or spend time convincing shoppers why a specific ingredient needs to be in there.