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.
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.