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.