Major Food Brands Dump the Junk

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Talk about a domino effect. One after another, from Pepsi to Panera, over a dozen major food brands and restaurant chains this past year have announced they are removing artificial colors, flavorings and preservatives, GMOs, antibiotics, and other ingredients deemed unhealthful by an increasingly discerning public from their products.

Driven by increased demand from Millennials for cleaner, healthier products, along with growing sales of natural and organic products across a broad spectrum of the US population – not to mention constant pressure by consumer advocacy groups and high-profile food activists – iconic food brands are dumping the junk and striving for a more health-oriented image.

One sign: people just aren’t drinking soda and eating junk food burgers as much as they used to. With fizzy soda sales on a long-term decline and 63% of Americans telling a Gallup survey last year that they are actively avoiding traditional soda drinks, “we’re operating in a very challenging environment,” Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent told analysts in a conference call in late April, reported the Washington Times.

For the quarter ending April 3, 2015, Coca-Cola reported a profit of $1.56 billion, or 35 cents a share, down 3.8% from the previous year. Global sales increased a modest 1%, the first growth in quarterly revenue in more than two years, reported the Washington Times.

After emerging rival Chipotle Mexican Grill – which announced recently that its menu is now non-GMO – reported that comparable-store sales were up 10.4% during the first quarter of 2015, McDonald's reported a 2.6% decline in same-store sales in the company's 14,000 U.S. locations during the quarter. Additionally revenue for McDonald’s for the quarter dropped 12% from $6.7 billion the previous year to just under $6 billion.

So, with mounting pressure from social media, consumer organizations, online petitions, and high-profile activists including GMO Inside, Vani Hari of Food Babe, Robyn O’Brien of Allergy Kids and others, combined with declining sales and profits for traditional junk foods, longstanding brands are retooling their recipes. Whether of their own volition, as in the case of Chipotle, or under pressure, recent examples of companies getting on board the clean label bandwagon include the following.

Chipotle says Adios to GMOs Making good on a two-year promise, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced in late April 2015 that it had removed all ingredients made with genetically modified organisms from its menu. The company's corn and flour tortillas were among the hardest items to change, but now they’re non-GMO, thanks to Chipotle's collaboration with suppliers to plant non-GMO corn varieties, reported NPR. GMO soybean oil in the chips and taco shells was replaced with non-GMO sunflower oil. However, Chipotle still uses meat from animals that may be fed on GMO corn or soybeans, admits CEO Steve Ells, though the company wants to change that, but it may take several years, he said.

Panera Drops Long List of Artificial Ingredients Artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and 150 other artificial ingredients are being nixed from Panera’s menu by the end of 2016, the restaurant chain announced in May 2015. Panera uses more than 450 ingredients to prepare its food in nearly 1,900 locations across the US. In a move to protect its sales and remove one-third of its ingredients, the company created a "No No List" based on research and standards developed by Johns Hopkins, the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council and various European governments, reported the New York Times. Panera said it worked with both its suppliers and their suppliers, who themselves were not always certain whether their products contained the ingredients on Panera’s list.

Kraft Mac & Cheese Goes Au Natural Moms across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kraft Foods, after an onslaught by bloggers and food activists, announced in April 2015 that it would remove artificial colors and preservatives in the U.S. version of its iconic Macaroni & Cheese by January 2016. Kraft says it will replace synthetic colors — including Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 — with naturally derived colors such as paprika, annatto and turmeric – the way it's been formulated in Europe for years.

PepsiCo Removes Aspartame from Diet Pepsi; Adds Sucralose Instead PepsiCo announced it is removing aspartame, first sold under the brand name NutraSweet, from Diet Pepsi by August 2015 in response to customer feedback, and replacing it with sucralose, another artificial sweetener known as Splenda. Aspartame is "literally the number-one complaint we've heard from diet-cola consumers as to why they're drinking less and less diet cola, " Seth Kaufman, SVP for PepsiCo, told NPR.

Coca-Cola: No More Fire Retardant in Soda Coca-Cola and PepsiCo both announced in May 2014 they would remove brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from all of their beverages. BVO was first patented as a flame retardant, but has also been added to many American sodas for decades, reported health expert Dr. Mercola. “Regardless of what the official statements say, the companies made this move due to consumer outrage started with an online petition…from a college student that gained over 200,000 signatures,” reported the Motley Fool.

Hershey’s Kisses Goodbye to GMO The Hershey Co. announced in February 2015 it intends to remove genetically modified ingredients from Hershey’s Milk Chocolate and its iconic Kisses – first introduced in 1907 – by the end of 2015. The company will replace sugar derived from GMO sugar beets with cane sugar, and will switch to a non-GMO soy lecithin as it pledged to focus on "simple ingredients." It will also remove the emulsifier polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR) and artificial vanillin in its products. Hershey in December 2014 said it would work to replace high-fructose corn syrup in sweets including York Peppermint Patties and Almond Joy candy bars. "We are specifically looking to formulate new products and transition existing products to deliver on no artificial flavors, no synthetic colors, no high fructose corn syrup and to be gluten free," Hershey said in a statement.

Nestle Makes Over Butterfinger, Baby Ruth Not to be outdone by the Hershey Co., Nestlé USA also announced in February 2015 it would remove artificial flavors and synthetic colors, including Red 40 and Yellow 5, from all of its chocolate candy products. By the end of 2015, more than 250 products and 10 brands, including Butterfinger, Crunch, and Baby Ruth candy and Nesquik powdered drink mixes, will be free of artificial flavors and certified colors, said the company. Products will begin appearing on store shelves by mid-2015, and will be identified by a “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” claim featured on-pack.

McDonalds: No Human Antibiotics in Chicken McDonald's will stop selling chicken treated with antibiotics that are also used in human medicine, the company announced in March 2105. The phase-out will occur over the next two years, as the world's largest restaurant chain works with its suppliers, which include poultry giant Tyson Foods (see below). Chickens used by McDonald's will still be treated with antibiotics that aren't used in human medicine, reported Time Magazine. The announcement came three days after McDonald's new CEO Steve Easterbrook took over leadership of the company, when he pledged to reform McDonald's into a "modern, progressive burger company."

Tyson Removes Human Antibiotics in Poultry Operations Tyson Foods announced in April 2015 that it is striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by September 2017. The country’s largest producer of poultry will report annually on its progress, beginning with its fiscal 2015 Sustainability Report. In October 2014, Tyson said it no longer uses antibiotics in its 35 chicken hatcheries. The company still uses antibiotics in chicken feed “when prescribed by a veterinarian to treat or prevent disease” and said the “vast majority of the antibiotics” it uses aren’t used in humans. The company said it is researching “alternative treatments and protocols that will eventually eliminate the application of any antibiotics used in human medicine from poultry feed,” Food Safety News reported. Tyson offers a completely antibiotic-free chicken under its NatureRaised Farms brand.

Subway Bows to Food Babe Over Additive After food blogger Vani Hari, also known as Food Babe, launched an online petition in early 2014 to convince Subway to remove a controversial food additive, the sandwich giant announced plans to phase it out of its fresh-baked breads, reported NPR in February 2014. The additive, azodicarbonamide, is often used by the commercial baking industry to bleach flour and condition dough. However, as the petition points out, the compound has been phased out in many other countries, and the World Health Organization has linked it to asthma in people. A spokesperson for Subway told NPR, "We are already in the process of removing azodicarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts, despite the fact that it is a USDA and FDA approved ingredient."

Dunkin’ Donuts Ditches Nanoparticles Responding to concerns that a whitening agent, titanium dioxide, is a nanoparticle that may be unsafe for human consumption, Dunkin' Donuts announced in March 2015 that it will no longer use the ingredient – also used in sunscreen and paints – in its donuts. The decision came after an environmental advocacy organization said it found titanium dioxide nanoparticles in the white powdered sugar used in Dunkin' Donuts products, based on independent laboratory tests in 2013. As You Sow, an Oakland-based group, said the small size of nanomaterials might make them more likely to enter cells, tissues and organs and cause damage. The FDA does not have a broad stance on products containing nanomaterials, saying it would make safety judgments on an individual basis, reported the Los Angeles Times. Dunkin’ Donuts said the titanium dioxide used in its products "does not meet the definition of 'nanomaterial' as outlined under FDA guidance," nonetheless it is making the change to remove the chemical from its donuts.

Yoplait Reduces Sugar Content by 25% Following Yoplait's removal of high fructose corn syrup and its discontinued used of dairy with rBGH/rBST growth hormone in 2009, the leading yogurt brand announced in May 2015 that it is reducing the sugar content in its single serve yogurt cups by 25%. The move is the latest in brand owner General Mills' efforts to provide consumers with more healthful, category-leading products, reported Food Ingredients First. In order to reduce the sugar, Yoplait included additional milk and changed the natural flavorings, the company said, adding that Yoplait contains no artificial sweeteners or flavors.

Target Repositions Food Business Toward Healthier Options Target in April 2015 named Anne Dament the company's top executive to lead the repositioning of its food business. Dament brings nearly 20 years of grocery and consumer packaged goods experience to the role, including as a buyer at Supervalu and Safeway, said Target in an April 2015 press release. Target’s food reinvention, expected to take place over the next 18 months, will emphasize six key categories that resonate most with its customers:  better-for-you snacks, coffee and tea, premium sauces and oils, specialty candy, wine and craft beer, and yogurt and granola. It will also expand the availability of natural, organic, locally grown and gluten-free choices to fit customers' wellness-focused lifestyles, the company said. Work on the reinvention is underway, with the most significant changes slated to arrive in stores in 2016.

Wendy's Goes Veggie Columbus, OH, is the test market for a new black bean veggie burger at Wendy’s, the nation’s third largest burger chain, reported the Columbus Dispatch on May 18, 2015. While petitioners at Change.org had been asking the company, founded by Dave Thomas in Columbus in 1969, for a veggie burger option, Wendy’s had been testing its black bean burger at two locations in Columbus. White Castle, another Columbus-based burger chain, tested a veggie burger last year, purchasing its patties from a New Jersey company, Dr. Praeger’s Sensible Foods, which also makes a line of frozen veggie-burger products. White Castle made the veggie burger a permanent menu item in March 2015. Additionally, in late April 2015, Wendy’s announced that it added an organic tea – Honest Tea’s Tropical Green Tea – to its permanent menu. The product began rolling out nationally in May. “While the move may seem insignificant, it’s huge for the organic food movement – taking organic beyond the world of specialty and natural foods restaurants and into the absolute mainstream of fast-food America,” said USA Today.

Editor's Note:  This blog was originally published on the website/blog of our friends and colleagues at Agrisystems International:  http://agrisysintl.com/major-food-brands-dump-the-junk/.

Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural Marketing, providing brand marketing, PR, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic and sustainable products businesses. He is the former Editorial Director of Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine and co-founder of the LOHAS Journal.