Switching to Healthy Ingredients Is Riskier for Brands Than You Might Think

People want chemicals out, but alienating consumers is a concern

Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

As of Thursday, patrons of Dunkin’ Donuts could step into the shops and behold a small miracle—racks and racks of those dizzyingly colorful donuts, all of them chemical free. After much work, the donut chain finally gave the boot to artificial coloring (though some limited-edition donuts may still contain it).

“Eliminating artificial dyes from our donuts is an incredible milestone,” CMO Tony Weisman said in a statement, beaming that Dunkin’ will now furnish customers “with simpler ingredients while still delivering the delicious taste and vivid colors expected with our donuts.”

Does this announcement have a familiar ring? It should. If you’ve paid any attention to menu boards and ingredient lists in the past few years, you’ve watched one major brand after another frantically trying to offload artificial additives, preservatives, flavors, colors and anything else that can’t pass for “natural.” Dunkin’ Donuts is only the latest chain to do it.

But as packaged-foods and restaurant brands race to ditch all the artificial stuff—an effort that will, presumably, reward them with the patronage of finicky and health-conscious consumers—they’re dealing with a kind of Catch-22 that rarely makes headlines. Food brands have little choice but to adopt these so-called clean ingredient lists, but their “reward” usually includes high conversion costs and complex sourcing problems. And when the reformulated products finally come out, they risk alienating some of the very same customers the companies are trying so hard to please.

Dunkin Donuts

Consumers, says Mintel global food and drink analyst Jenny Zegler, have little concept of how tough these changes can be and tend to take the results for granted.

“It’s really hard, from a consumer perspective, to understand that you can’t just flip the switch [for healthier products],” she says. For a brand as large as Dunkin’ Donuts especially, “it’s really difficult to find the ingredients that are substitutes for these artificial colors that look the same and taste the same—and cost the same.”

Going clear

Dunkin’ Donuts joins a very long list of brands that have invested time and money in reformulating recipes historically heavy with artificial stuff. It all got going in earnest in 2015, when a slew of brands including Campbell Soup Company, Nestle, General Mills, Kraft and Chipotle announced pledges to clean up their ingredient lists.

The ranks have only grown since then. In 2016, McDonald’s announced it would remove artificial preservatives from items including Chicken McNuggets and its biscuit breakfast sandwiches, while candy giant Mars pledged to banish all artificial colors “from its human food products.”

Last year saw still more major companies getting in on the act. In May, Oscar Mayer made headlines when it promised to take all the byproducts, artificial preservatives and added nitrates out of its hot dogs. August saw an announcement from Target to banish artificial ingredients from its private-label Simply Balanced and Market Pantry brands, while grocery chain Hy-Vee announced it would eliminate 200 artificial ingredients and “synthetic chemicals” from a thousand of its products. Then, in September, Smoothie King announced its “Cleaning Blending” initiative that will nix artificial flavors, colors, preservatives and added hormones from all of its drinks, which will now be made with non-GMO fruits and vegetables.

To hear them explain it, the brands are responding to broad-scale customer demand for cleaner foods. As McDonald’s president Mike Andres put it in 2016, “More than ever, people care about their food—where it comes from, what goes into it and how it’s prepared.”

And indeed, there’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest as much.

A 2014 survey by Consumer Reports found that 59 percent of shoppers now check to see if the products they’re buying are “natural” (meaning free of artificial ingredients or preservatives). Similarly, a Nielsen survey from 2016 revealed that 64 percent of global consumers say they deliberately avoid certain foods or specific ingredients in their diets. Last year, food and restaurant consultancy Technomic’s Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report found that 59 percent of consumers believed that “clean” ingredients align with greater healthfulness—“so consumers do want that,” says the firm’s menu analyst Patricia Cobe. “They also asked people what they associate with clean eating, and the No. 1 answer was no artificial ingredients.”

Clean menu, big headache

All well and good, but the companies making these changes face a slew of challenges that, while not making the switchover prohibitive, at least make it difficult and expensive. The jury’s also out on whether the brands that clean up their menus have been rewarded with increased business.

First off, swapping out artificial ingredients for natural ones can be a frightfully expensive undertaking. In 2015, Papa John’s admitted it was spending $100 million just to get rid of additives and artificial ingredients from its menu items.

“These natural ingredients are more costly,” Zegler observes. “And then, also, they’re hard to [find]. So everyone says we’re going to be natural, but companies have a difficult time sourcing that stuff.”

Cobe agrees. When restaurant chains Chick-Fil-A and McDonald’s announced in 2014 and 2017, respectively that they would begin eliminating antibiotics from the chickens they use, the immediate problem was, as Cobe puts it, “there weren’t enough chickens.”

When huge companies decide to make a broad-scale ingredient substitution like that, “there’s a lag in the supply chain, and that’s the biggest problem,” she says. “Suppliers are now getting on board, but it’s going to take them a while for supply to meet demand.”

The process of finding natural ingredients to substitute explains why many brands allow themselves windows of two and three years (sometimes longer) to make the promised switch.

And sometimes, the switch simply doesn’t work out.

Playing Trix

When General Mills decided to eliminate artificial ingredients from its cereals in 2015, the company stated that “each cereal requires different changes”—quite the understatement, considering that its monster-cereal portfolio was a cornucopia of blindingly colorful marshmallows and crunchies that appeared nowhere else in the natural universe. And while the goal was to duplicate all the familiar colors, cereal division president Jim Murphy admitted that “some, like Trix, will look a bit different as we remove colors.”

In the end, while the company did find some natural substitutes (using ingredients like radishes and turmeric to accomplish the cereal’s purple and orange hues), it had to nix the green and blue kibble completely. In the breakfast bowl, the reformulated Trix resembled something akin to balls made of dried beets. It didn’t go over well.

“Our Trix fans have been calling us, emailing us and reaching out to us on social media asking if we would consider bringing back the original formulation of Trix cereal with its vibrant colors,” read a General Mills statement. “Consumers have different food preference, and we hear from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal.”

And so, two years after rolling out the cleaned-up Trix, GM popped the clutch in reverse. In September of last year, it announced the return of the old Trix—“Classic Trix” is the shelf name—featuring all the old familiar colors, and the artificial ingredients necessary to make them.

The company’s conclusion: “Not everyone likes the same thing.”

Taste is another potential problem. Natural substitutes can’t always produce the same flavors that customers are used to—even though, says Prophet partner Maureen Treankler, customers pretty much expect it to remain the same.

“They still want it to taste the same, and they don’t want artificial ingredients,” she says, explaining that this challenge is especially acute when it comes to treats like donuts and other sweets. “Consumers are willing to lower the bar on the nutrition, but they still want the indulgent taste,” she says. “That would be the tricky factor. Consumers feel like they shouldn’t have to make the compromises.”

So what happens when healthier ingredients do require consumers to make compromises on flavor? They complain, of course.

The backlash

In 2016, Kraft made headlines when it debuted a reformulation of its famous Macaroni & Cheese brands without telling anyone. The extremely clever bit of marketing was meant to demonstrate that people were already enjoying the cleaned-up product without knowing that natural ingredients like annatto, turmeric and paprika were behind the day-glo orange color that helped make the brand famous.

The only trouble was some fans did notice and let their ire be known. “They changed the Kraft Mac and Cheese recipe and it tastes like garbage,” Tweeted one disgruntled fan. “I want to cry because of it, all I want is mac and cheese[,] man.”

“I knew it,” said another (again via Twitter). “Kraft fucked up the flavor of their mac and cheese by adding paprika as a coloring agent. Shit tastes like Cheetos now.”

A few months later, it was Pillsbury’s turn to take the heat. The General Mills brand had changed the recipe for its ready-to-bake, chocolate-chip cookie dough, getting rid of the preservatives, high fructose, and artificial colors and flavors. And while many consumers were satisfied with the results, some were clearly not.

There was this:

And this:

What do they want, anyway?

Indeed: Who knew? Setting aside the issue that natural ingredients don’t necessarily deliver the benefits consumers presume they will—Pillsbury’s new cookie dough might have been all-natural, but the calorie count didn’t change—consumers themselves aren’t always clear about the ingredient changes they’re busy demanding.

For example, in 2015, NPD queried 5,000 consumers about what “clean eating” meant to them and, perhaps not surprisingly, found a range of views. While some purists believe packaged foods have no place in a healthy diet, 61 percent felt they were acceptable, and 44 percent even said “some processing” of those foods was also OK.

The report also found that while the percentage of consumers who want cleaned-up labels was growing, “people who are core followers of clean eating currently represent only about 5 percent of primary grocery shoppers.”

Which raises another important point. All-natural ingredients are often more expensive than those good old-fashioned fake ones, and while some evidence suggests that consumers are willing to pay more for them (40 percent of consumers, per Technomic’s data), it’s too early to tell if consumers will reward brands making these changes with increased purchases.

Mintel’s Zegler says she can’t think of a company that cleaned up its ingredient list “and now their sales are up exponentially,” but rather wagers that natural ingredients will more likely turn out to be a generalized incentive. In the case of Dunkin’ Donuts, she says, “maybe it’ll give [consumers] one more reason to indulge in a donut,” knowing that that donut no longer has a list of unpronounceable ingredients going into it.

Ditching the artificial ingredients “is still a positive step and a positive moment,” she adds. “It might not be this massive traffic driver, [but] natural is still an expectation and it’s still a great positive.”

Even if it is a pain to pull it off.