'Artificial Exit': The Food Industry’s Newest Pandora’s Box

By Suzy Badaracco, Foodable Industry Expert

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A Pandora’s Box is the term used to describe a type of trend that is all encompassing, ties in with many other trends, has very little chance of ever diminishing, and has attributes making it virtually unstoppable.  Once opened, a Pandora’s Box is extremely unlikely to close again. It behaves like a virus, spreading into and influencing other trends, thereby replicating its own influence and increasing its alliances. Pandora’s Boxes also have the rare attribute of having few or no adversaries. There are no two sides to this coin – everyone is on board and moving it forward on one tract or another, but with the common purpose to keep it alive and growing.

The “Artificial Exit” is one of newest Pandora’s Boxes in the food industry. It joins the ranks of sustainability and adultized kids’ meals as an unstoppable trend. 

Blurred Lines

Its birth is a Morph, whereby a cousin to a current trend steals the spotlight. The trend began with “natural” then moved to “free from,” which then moved briefly to “pure,” and finally to “artificial exit.” The FDA has refused to define the term “natural,” and it therefore remains one of the leading arguments in lawsuits against the industry, particularly with suits involving products containing GMOs, as to what constitutes “natural” since there is no legal definition. That may change since The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would prohibit the mandatory labeling of biotech foods, was approved by the House of Representatives in a 275-150 vote on July 23rd, 2015. It would set up a voluntary program for companies that want to disclose genetically modified ingredients. Firms that want to claim their food is GMO-free would have to submit to a certification process overseen by the Department of Agriculture. It would also allow the Food and Drug Administration to define the label “natural” to include genetically engineered material.  

For the time being, the terms “natural,” “free from,” and “pure” are subjective, which causes them to be their own worst enemy when used by industry. Subjectivity opens a trend up for attacks by adversarial groups which can result in lawsuits.  

Making Strides

What sets the “Artificial Exit” trend apart from its cousins is that it is better defined and directional. It allows a company to strategically enter the trend by clearly demonstrating its entrance strategy to both consumers and industry clients. Some of the recent examples of the Artificial Exit include:

  • General Mills: plans to remove artificial flavors and colors from all cereals over next 2-3 years
  • Panera Bread: announced it is working to eliminate a list of 150 additives, artificial colors and flavors from its menu by 2016
  • Pizza Hut: plans to cut artificial colors and flavors from its pizzas by the end of July
  • Subway: plans to remove artificial ingredients from many menu items
  • Taco Bell: set a goal of 2017 to remove most artificial ingredients from its menu

Notice that although General Mills is a retail player, the trend is really being championed by QSR, fast casual and family casual in foodservice. These brief announcements succinctly demonstrate intent, direction, and commitment to the issue in terms easy enough for consumers to understand. It isn’t a surprise that this Morph has produced a more concise cousin since consumer research has been tracking in this direction over the past few years. Just in the last quarter, consumer research itself has revealed consumer desire:

  • Technomic: 43 percent purchase products free from additives because of the health benefits, 78 percent see "no artificial sweeteners" as healthier, 73 percent say that antibiotic-free food or beverages are healthier, 21 percent think that additive-free means better taste
  • Packaged Facts: 66 percent of consumers prefer food items with fewer and simpler ingredients, and take nutritional content, ingredient-free, and health benefit statements into consideration when buying food and beverage items
  • CivicScience: Americans believe preservatives/chemicals are more harmful than added sugar, saturated fat and sodium
  • Mintel: 84 percent of those consumers who choose foods bearing “free-from” claims say they are seeking out more natural or less processed foods, 43 percent agree that free-from foods are healthier than foods without a free-from claim

Understanding the Motivation

Although this trend is seen as honorable and the industry is being applauded for its efforts, not everyone sees it that way. Although the trend itself has no adversaries, there are some who are questioning corporate motivation behind the trend. For example, CSPI commented that “Just because something is hard to pronounce, doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.” Some of the additives that companies are removing are harmless, such as calcium propionate or sodium lactate. These moves are seen by CSPI as more about public relations than public health.  

CSPI makes a good point though. If a company’s motivations are purely for marketing, regardless of the trend, eventually it will surface and backfire. Companies can make the mistake of blindly following a trend, good or bad, instead of educating the public on the reasons why following a trend may not be the right move for a company or the consumer. What CSPI is saying is that if a company simply pointed out to the public that calcium propionate inhibits mold, a replacement may not be needed, especially if the replacement costs more. 

Trends are rarely an all-or-nothing proposition, so strategizing around where a company’s needs meet with public needs is usually the wisest path.