Editor's Plate: Food Processors Like Kraft Are Practicing 'Stealth Reformulations'

May 19, 2016
Nestle and Hormel, too, are moving bad ingredients first, announcing it later.

There’s been an interesting trend in food and beverage product development this year: Cleaning up product formulations without telling consumers about it. At least not at first.

“It’s changed … but it hasn’t” is how Kraft Heinz touted the quiet reformulation of its classic blue box Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinners in April. “Now it has no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes.” And hasn't for about six months, only Kraft hasn't told the consuming public till now.

To me it seems that for the two previous years I heard a lot of promises for label clean-ups but with far-off dates (“by the end of 2017, we will have…”). Actual reformulation activity seemed to pick up at the end of last year. And while I think other companies have employed a “do it first, announce it later” approach, Kraft’s struck me and got a lot of consumer media attention as well. Maybe it’s because the mac & cheese dinner is in so many homes, especially ones with children.

“We know you’ve loved our macaroni & cheese for over 75 years. We also know you want to feel good about what you eat and serve your family. So we’ve listened and evolved,” the company statement said. “We’ve also reduced saturated fats in our Shapes products and have taken steps to include more whole grains in our pasta without compromising the great taste you know and love.”

On its website, Kraft unwittingly provides the explanation for why it’s taking everyone else so long: “Ingredient changes don’t happen overnight. And our loyal fans don’t want their iconic Kraft Macaroni & Cheese to taste any different. This means all ingredients have to work together to deliver the distinctive cheesy taste, appearance and texture you love. We weren’t ready to change the product until we were confident that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese still tasted like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.”

Sure, it’s steeped in marketingspeak, but the Kraft Heinz R&D folks pulled it off. Kudos to them. It can be done, is being done, but there are so many more products out there that need a remake.

In our News section, we reported this month on Nestle U.S. Ice Creams and Hormel taking similar tacks. Each company announced a clean-up is under way and would take time to be completed but also noted some products had already been simplified. All of which makes Dannon’s announcement  that it may take till December 2017 to label GMOs look disingenuous. There are – how many? – maybe four ingredients in a yogurt? And it’ll take them two years to figure out which ones are genetically engineered?

It seems to me Big Food’s reputation with consumers calls for a little more urgency.

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