Take another look at that food label. An ingredient or two may have
As Americans pay closer attention to what they eat, food and beverage
companies are learning that unfamiliar ingredients can invite criticism from
online petitions and bloggers.
The risk of damaging publicity has proven serious enough that some
manufacturers have reformulated top-selling products to remove mysterious,
unpronounceable components that could draw suspicion.
Earlier this year, for example, PepsiCo Inc. said it would stop using
brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade and find a another way to evenly
distribute colour in the sports drink. Last year, Starbucks said it would stop
using a red dye made of crushed bugs based on comments it received
"through a variety of means", including an online petition, and
switch to a tomato-based extract.
Kraft Foods plans to replace
artificial dyes with colours derived from natural spices in select varieties of
its macaroni and cheese, a nod to the feedback it's hearing from parents.
Agitating for change
Ali Dibadj, a Bernstein analyst who covers the packaged food and beverage
industry, says the changes reflect a shift from "democratisation to
activism" by consumers.
"It used to be that people would just decide not to buy the product.
Now they're actually agitating for change," Dibadj said. "There's a bullhorn
which is the Internet so you can get a lot of people involved very
Companies stand by the safety of their old recipes. Although they don't
typically provide details on production decisions, their reasons for using
certain ingredients can include cost and manufacturing efficiencies.
Still, food and beverage makers can be sensitive about broadcasting any
changes. Chick-fil-A, for instance, has been removing artificial dyes and
high-fructose corn syrup from its dressings and sauces. The Atlanta-based chain
is also testing a "clean ingredient bun" but has not alerted
"The reason companies don't publicise it is that they don't want to
bring attention to these ingredients. They want to slowly start to remove them
until they're all gone," said Vani Hari, who runs the site FoodBabe.com
and has pressured companies to remove artificial dyes and other ingredients.
Petitions and concerns
There are no numbers tracking how many companies are reformulating products
in response to consumer demand. But even if recipe changes aren't in direct
response to petitions or blogs, executives understand that ingredients can
become a liability once they fall out of favour with the public.
High-fructose corn syrup, for example, has gained a negative image in recent
years and has been blamed for fuelling bad eating habits. The Centre for
Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, says the sweetener is
no more harmful than ordinary sugar in large amounts. But Kroger Co. decided to
remove it from store-brand cereals following surveys with consumers in 2011.
The supermarket chain isn't alone. Over the past decade, the use of
high-fructose corn syrup in packaged foods and drinks has fallen 18% to 6.1
million tons last year, according to market researcher Euromonitor
The latest moves to swap out ingredients underscore the growing sway
consumers have through sites such as Change.org, which lets people post
In the past, a customer complaint about an ingredient may have been
addressed with a boilerplate letter from corporate headquarters. But now people
can go online to share their concerns with thousands of like-minded
Attention to ingredients
John Boeheim, of New York's Hudson Valley, says he avoids a number of
ingredients, including the artificial sweetener aspartame and a red dye, in
part because of what he's read on blogs and social media.
"We've taught our kids to look at the labels, to look at the
ingredients," Boeheim said.
Companies are paying attention too. Chick-fil-A says it will continue to
improve ingredients to keep up with changing tastes and even invited Hari to
spend the day at its headquarters sharing her concerns.
Not all companies are making changes, at least not right away. The Mississippi
teenager who called for the removal of brominated vegetable oil in Gatorade,
for instance, is now taking aim at Coca-Cola's Powerade, which also contains
the ingredient in select varieties. Sarah Kavanagh's petition now has more than 57 000 supporters.
In a statement, Coca-Cola noted that all its ingredients comply with
regulations. But the company also said it is "always looking for ways to
evolve" its formulas.
Another petition that asks Mars Inc. to remove artificial colours from
M&Ms had more than 141 000 signatures. In an emailed statement, the
privately held company stressed the safety of its ingredients.
Although it has not announced any changes, the company noted that it
continues to explore the use of naturally sourced colours and that it is
"constantly evaluating" its ingredients based on a variety of
factors, including consumer preference.
(Picture: A woman shocked at food label from Shutterstock)