Fast Food Recipe Changes: Smart Science or Smart Marketing?

One of the bigger news stories over the past few weeks in the mainstream media cycle was the series of announcements by fast food chains regarding the removal of artificial preservatives and other recipe changes. The news rides a trend of increased focus by the American consumer on natural foods and healthier eating.


However, at the core of the debate is the question whether this set of changes was smart from a food science perspective or is it a case of smart marketing? Will the changes to the recipes make the food taste different?


These questions will be explored as well as the background to the decisions from an executive level. This news follows the introduction of new chicken offerings by fast food giants McDonald’s and Subway recently that feature the removal of preservatives and artificial ingredients. Those changes made consumers, such as myself, pause and wonder what was in the chicken in the first place, if the chains had to pronounce the new supply basically as “real” chicken.


I have covered the natural foods trend for a while now, but I am still surprised at how some people within the media feel it is a “fad”. Where that label is a misnomer is that fads do not last as long as this trend has within the American food landscape. The sales of organic foods were at an all-time high in 2014, this “fad” is not slowing any time soon, and now you see the bigger players across the industry getting on board.


The most recent of those big players to drop into the recipe change trend came just before the Memorial Day holiday weekend, when Taco Bell and Pizza Hut announced changes to make their food offerings “more natural”. Both chains are experimenting with the revamped recipes at this point. Taco Bell mentioned in the press release to the media that they are focused on removing ingredients such as natural black pepper flavor and replacing it with real black pepper.


I have prior industry experience in the flavor industry and this trend of replacing flavor systems, whether they be natural or artificial flavors (Panera Bread is removing all artificial flavors and ingredients from their menu by the end of 2016) will damage the flavor ingredients industry which has already been slowed by other factors. The chief factor in the downturn being the decreased number of new products being developed in many segments of the food industry by the large food production companies.


These changes to the menu offerings of several major fast food operators will have a dramatic impact on the supplier side of the food industry across many segments from preservatives, sweeteners, and other industrial products. It is similar to anything else, it is a relationship of cause and effect.


Taste and See


The big question at the forefront of this debate is whether these changes are smart from a food science perspective or whether they are just simply an exercise in smart marketing? I think the “jury is still out” on the answer. In my view the new recipes will have to be rolled out first and then be subjective to public opinion before we know the answer.


In a related issue, it remains to be seen whether the taste profiles of some of these menu items will be altered based on the changes made to the recipes to make them more natural in orientation. Some industry experts seem to feel that the changes to the recipes being proposed by these restaurant chains will inevitably alter the taste profiles of those menu offerings in some way.

Panera Bread, for instance, has already completed the most painstaking of the menu changes at hand: the removal of artificial sweeteners and chemical ingredients from their salad dressings. They believe that the taste profiles are similar to the original line of dressings for their extensive salad offerings.


However, in the end, as the food expert featured on Fox Business explained relative to Panera Bread and I am paraphrasing: all these changes are all well and good but at the end of the day their main product is still bread, and bread is still inherently unhealthy.


Other restaurant chains have publicly stated that they will only make these recipe changes if it makes sense from both a taste and a cost perspective. In the event that the executives at a given company feel that the taste profile is too dramatically altered, or if the cost of the alterations to an all-natural recipe are cost prohibitive, then it will be scrapped.


Smart Marketing


I mentioned earlier that I have industry experience in the flavor industry working on product line extensions with the largest food companies in the world. I also have experience in marketing in a variety of other industries and I can tell you, and some other industry experts agree with this assessment, that most of these announced recipe changes from the large fast food restaurant operators are based on smart marketing more than any other variable within this equation.


Taco Bell, for instance, took a hit back several years ago when it was discovered that they used GMO corn in their tortilla shells and other corn based menu items. They took another hit when they had issues with their supply of beef for their menu items back about five years ago.


The net effect of those two public relations nightmares caused the executive team at Taco Bell and other fast food operations to look to the natural foods trend to bring some positive marketing and media coverage to the often negative feedback loop which is the fast food industry.


In the case of a chain like Panera Bread it is smart marketing more than smart food science and for two reasons: it appeals to the purchasing habits of their core demographic customer base, and it distracts somewhat from the fact that their main offering is still bread based products loaded with calories.


It is also true in the case of Pizza Hut, which is trying to stave off fierce competition from a resurgent Domino’s and a stalwart in Papa John’s, their executive team looked at this angle as a potential avenue to gain a point of difference with the customer. If they can tout that they are using natural products in their pizza offerings they are trying to win over a general public that is very much in tune with that natural products messaging.


This is a developing story and one where I am sure we have not seen the end. I am confident that more companies will come forward with pledges to change their recipes or their product offerings to reflect a change to more “natural” ingredients. It may, in some cases, end up costing the consumer more money for the same products before the changes were indoctrinated.


In the end, this whole scenario is more about smart marketing than anything else as these major food producers and restaurant chain operators all vie for one thing and one thing only: your money.







Red Nose Day – Lifting Communities From Poverty

Walgreens and NBC are teaming up to bring Red Nose Day to America, the telethon starts tonight at 8 PM. This event has been held in the United Kingdom since 1988 and will be held in the U.S. for the first time. The goal of the event is to raise funds to be used by several of the world’s leading non-profit charitable organizations in order to lift communities out of poverty.


Some “A list” Hollywood talent has been recruited to participate in the program this year, and social media has been very active with pictures of people wearing red noses to signify the event. A source told the media that Walgreens sales of the red noses far outpaced their anticipated demand.


The event has characteristically done well in the past in raising money in Britain for several charitable organizations. The U.S. telethon has a website where you can find out plenty of information about the event and the charities involved:


The importance of the work done by these organizations cannot be emphasized enough. The money raised has three goals for children and families: keep them safe, educate them, and ensure that they are healthy. The proceeds from tonight will be split with half going to the U.S. domestic based charitable programs and half going to programs to aid the poorest countries in the world.


The recent earthquake in Nepal, rising terrorist activities in Africa, and human rights issues throughout Asia underscore the need for these programs at this point for the international community. The poor communities in the world are threatened by drought conditions, economic stagnation, and political instability. The funds raised tonight will dramatically assist these organizations in helping those in need throughout the world.

The domestic side of the fundraising effort will help assist several notable charities such as Oxfam America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, LIFT, Feeding America, and the United Way. The stagnant job market, flat wages, and increased reliance on assistance programs such as food stamps have left so many American children hungry and families struggling.


You can make a difference in helping the communities located right in your own city or your home state to combat the perils of poverty. You can help these communities find a way to provide healthcare and educational opportunities so that they can thrive once again.


National Red Nose Day is an effort to raise awareness to the work that is done by these organizations, work that is critical to helping our communities and to helping children and families in need throughout the world. It is meant to be a starting point for other efforts toward education, fundraising, and volunteerism to continue throughout the year.


Please tune in to NBC tonight at 8 PM for the telethon and to help these communities both at home and abroad to make our world a better place for those most in need of our care and support. Thank you for taking the time to read this and to support this effort.