Fast-food chains feel need to get real (AP photo / Thinkstock)
Fast-food chains feel need to get real
Lexile

Fast-food chains have a New Year's resolution: Drop the junk.

As people express distaste for food they think is overly processed, McDonald's, Taco Bell and other chains are trying to shed their reputation for serving reheated meals that are loaded with chemicals. That includes rethinking the use of artificial preservatives and other ingredients customers find objectionable.

"This demand for fresh and real is on the rise," said Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.

During the presentation for analysts and investors last month, Creed said the company needs to be more transparent about ingredients and use fewer preservatives.

Recasting fast-food as "fresh" and "real" will be tricky, in large part because it's so universally regarded as cheap and greasy. Another problem is that terms like "fresh," ''real" and "healthy" have nebulous meanings, making it hard for companies to pin down how to approach transformation.

One way chains are looking to redefine themselves is by purging recipes of chemicals people might find unappetizing. Already, packaged food and beverage companies have reformulated products to remove such ingredients, even while standing by their safety. PepsiCo, for instance, said it would remove brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade after a petition by a teenager noted it isn't approved for use in some markets overseas.

And fast-food chains are indicating they want to jump on the "clean label" trend too:

Last month, McDonald's USA President Mike Andres outlined improvements the company is working on, including the simplification of ingredient labels. Without providing details, he said to expect some changes in early 2015. The remarks came after the company reported a 4.6 percent decline in U.S. sales for November, capping two years of struggling performance.

"Why do we need to have preservatives in our food?" Andres asked, noting McDonald's restaurants go through supplies quickly. "We probably don't."

Subway, a privately held company that does not disclose sales, started airing TV ads Thursday for its new chicken strips free of artificial preservatives and flavors. After suffering bad publicity, the company said earlier last year it would remove an ingredient from its bread that an online petition noted was also used in yoga mats. The ingredient, azodicarbonamide, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and widely used as a dough conditioner and whitening agent.

Chick-fil-A said in 2013 it would remove high-fructose corn syrup from buns and artificial dyes from its dressings. A couple months later, it said it plans to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics within five years.

Carl's Jr. last month introduced an "all-natural" burger with no added hormones, antibiotics or steroids. "We are obviously looking at other products on our menu to see which ones can be made all natural as well," said Brad Haley, the chain's chief marketing officer.

It's not clear how far fast-food companies will go in reformulating recipes. But the nation's biggest chains are facing growing competition. In the latest quarter, customer visits to traditional fast-food hamburger chains declined 3 percent from a year ago, according to market researcher NPD Group. Fast-casual chains which are seen as a step up from traditional fast-food saw visits rise 8 percent.

Part of the appeal of fast-casual chains is that they position themselves as being higher in quality. Chipotle, which touts its use of organic ingredients and meat from animals that were raised without antibiotics, said sales at established locations surged 19.8 percent in the most recent quarter. And Panera vowed this summer to remove artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from its food by 2016.

Dan Coudreaut, executive chef at McDonald's, has noted the difficulties in changing recipes. In an interview last year, he said McDonald's is looking at ways to use culinary techniques to replace the functions of certain ingredients.

"If you take (an ingredient) out, what are you giving up?" he said.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said there are likely many cases where artificial preservatives or colors could be replaced with natural alternatives without significant costs. Since their functions vary, he said companies would have to evaluate recipes product by product.

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back," also said getting rid of additives here and there won't be enough to change the way people think about fast-food.

"That's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Simon said. "These companies have a fundamental problem in who they are."

Critical thinking challenge: If artificial ingredients cost more than natural ingredients, why would fast food companies remove the artificial ingredients?

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COMMENTS (77)
  • DAlexis-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 08:23 a.m.

    To me, I think that making the fast food more healthy is good but most people are still gonna eat a lot of it and I think it`ll still be fattening, but it's a good effort for them to make it healthier and healthier every day. I don't think they will ever be able to make it completely healthy.

  • SPhilip-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 09:01 a.m.

    I think people are expecting way too much from fast food. They sit their and think that they can just get cheap, healthy food. In the end what differences do those few ingredients make? Most people will still pack on the pounds. I think the #1 way that fast food places can challenge obesity is by raising the price. If they raise the price and quality of the food, people will come and eat less often. The main reason so many people are getting obese from eating fast food is because they cannot afford anything else. It also tastes good.

  • CJason-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 09:04 a.m.

    I think that the fast food chains are making a smart decision on changing their recipes. The main reason for people not wanting to eat at fast food joints is because of how processed their food is. If the fast food chains actually stick to their word and change their recipes around to be more natural, then they probably could see a increase in profit.

  • KYatta-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 09:19 a.m.

    I really don't think that fast food restaurants changing their recipes will really make people look at them in a different light. People that are concerned about what foods they're putting into their bodies probably wouldn't be eating fast food anyways.

  • FVictoria-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 09:20 a.m.

    I believe that fast food chains are making a good choice by deciding to get real. Many people will not even think about eating fast food just because of the way it is viewed. Although replacing the artificial ingredients with natural ones would be more expensive, the companies will still make a larger profit. Most people will not mind paying a little extra if it means they're getting better quality food and many more people may start eating there once the recipes are changed.

  • DBenjamin-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 10:01 a.m.

    I think that it is a good idea for fast food restaurants to change. It is good because the rate of obesity has gone up and the fast food has been a big part of it. I think if they change their ways then the obesity rate may go down.

  • MGregory-Sti
    1/07/2015 - 10:04 a.m.

    the people are now complaining that the fast foods res-trons they say that the food has benn too greasy. and the food has a lot of fat in the people say that they should make the food less greasy and more healthier so the people dont get more fat.

  • LJavier-Sti
    1/07/2015 - 10:07 a.m.

    I think it's a good idea that there making healthier food but I still think people would eat a lot of their food and they will get sick or bigger.

  • AStephanie-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 10:08 a.m.

    I believe making fast food healthier will be a good idea for people who want to eat healthier. Personally I don't like to eat at fast food restaurants because of how bad quality the food is, but there are sometimes when I just want a burger. I think that if people wanted to eat healthy they would go to a healthy place or make their own food, but most people don't. So, yes this is a good idea but in America I don't believe it will get that far.

  • WMaia-Cas
    1/07/2015 - 10:12 a.m.

    I think that they should change some of the foods to healthier foods, but not all of them. Some people like to go to fast food restaurants to treat themselves every now and then with the greasy foods they love.

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