Recently, Milo changed its formulation by removing an artificial flavor, causing outrage to some consumers who expressed their anger through the Milo’s Facebook page. Nestlé external relations manager Margaret Stuart mentioned that this formula change is happening globally due to research done into the nutritional needs of children. Apparently, this Nestlé strategic move was an attempt to revitalize its brand by developing a healthier product, which was possibly stuck and no longer dynamic. Furthermore, in February, Nestlé USA announced that it would remove artificial flavors and colors from more than 250 products by the end of 2015. It seems that Nestlé is not only responding to a worldwide ingredients change trend that food companies are following, presumably based on health claims, but it is also seeking more profits based on the consumers’ perceptions about healthy food.
Nowadays food companies are taking the leadership in changing ingredients and formulations in response to public health issues. However, it is an important responsibility of governments to regulate food issues. Regulation on food changes should be a top priority for the federal government, which should invest in research and education programs in order to prevent public health problems in the future. Food companies may be in closer contact to consumers, but this interaction does not make them experts on public health issues.
Moreover, some fast-food chains are eager to listen to their consumers and take advantage of their beliefs in order to be more profitable. For example, Chipotle, a Mexican fast-food franchise in the United States, recently changed its ingredients to offer products GMO-free, due to consumers’ preferences for healthier ingredients, but not because of health reasons for this decision. GM foods have been consumed for over two decades and there is not conclusive evidence about their risks or noxious effects on health. What is more, this GMO-free menu label just takes advantage of perceptions, exploits the fears of uninformed consumers, reinforces the negative image of biotechnology companies and GM foods, and inspires trust in the franchise corporate brand. In that regard, the US federal government has neglected to make new regulations for GMOs labeling even though that some groups of citizens concerned about the right to know are asking for these regulations. In addition, biotechnology companies have lobbied the government in order to prevent new labeling.
Following that same trend, Abbott Laboratories will offer a non-GMO version of its baby formula Similac. Abbott’s pediatric nutrition business general manager Chris Calamari has expressed that the company is offering this new product because it is listening to parents that want a GMO-free option. Another reason for this change is the projected baby formula sales estimated over four billion dollars a year, according to the market research firm Nielsen. For a pharmaceutical manufacturer, it is expected to base this change on scientific research rather than only responding to consumers’ desires or profitability. Moreover, because this is a product related to the baby’s growth and health, the government should be regulating changes in these reformulations and not letting companies to freely adopt emotional labeling.
Panera, a bakery-café chain, has also announced a list of unacceptable ingredients, according to its own perspective. For example, it will remove artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives used in its salad dressings. Panera founder and CEO Ron Shaich argued that they are not scientists, but they try to make better food with simpler ingredients. The problem of this franchise is not the artificial flavors in its foods, but the level of calories and carbohydrates of its products. As other fast-food chains and processed foods, these products are highly contributing to the problems of overweight and obesity in the US. The efforts that the government has done in asking fast-food franchises to show their nutritional information are a good start.
Taco Bell and Pizza Hut will remove artificial colors and flavors, and some additives and preservatives, and Subway will replace artificial ingredients with natural alternatives because consumers nowadays prefer products perceived as healthier. These foods are not the healthiest options, but these franchises are trying to reduce the negative image of these products. Although these franchises in reality are not deeply concerned about health, they are taking advantage of consumers’ interests for healthier food in order to expand their markets and preserve the actual ones. Fast-food chains are not entitled to decide what ingredients are the healthiest ones, but the government is not playing its regulatory role about what is offered in these companies. Paradoxically, the government is stricter with processed food and biotechnology companies in regard to research, development and introduction of new products, which need to accomplish a long process for approvals, and need to assume higher costs and risks with each new product introduced to the market.
All these strategic movements are to attract new or past consumers that previously to this trend would not opt for a product that seemed very artificial. After these changes, people may consider to try fast-food because they now may perceive it as more natural or healthier. Additionally, these consumers may have peace of mind by not consuming artificial ingredients while eating fast-food. Nevertheless, regular consumers may encounter a product with a new formula that tastes different, that may be unpleasant for them, and therefore something that originally was a consistent product in their lives, now becomes a new product to adopt. Furthermore, these regular consumers are seen as the victims of a minority group that advocates companies requesting healthier food because of the principles they follow, which not necessarily reflect the regular consumers expectations, desires and emotions. These regular consumers just want a taco, pizza or salad dressing that tastes as it usually does regardless of the ingredients it has.
Apart of making more profits, companies following this ingredients change trend are projecting themselves as more socially responsible, by being concerned about nutrition and listening to consumers, displacing the government in responding to public health concerns. Companies want to be innovative by bringing these new formulations. However, the government has been left behind in innovating, researching and regulating food changes, and it is distracted with other issues, rather than protecting consumers worried about their health.
Finally, these changes respond to consumers who most of the time are driven by perceptions and emotions rather than rational, scientific or health grounds. Global companies will always pursue economic growth instead of developing products to solve public health issues. Indeed, if it is necessary to adopt different ingredients in order to build a perception of a healthier product, companies will take the risk of upsetting some consumers. The regulatory government agencies should take the leadership in innovation and regulation of new labels and ingredients in order to prevent other public health problems in the future.
Yadira Ixchel Martinez Pantoja is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. Her PhD topic is about US public diplomacy and the promotion of GM foods.
Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes https://flic.kr/p/ettyfg