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.

Customers don't want food they think is overly processed. McDonald's, Taco Bell and other chains are trying to shed their reputation for serving meals that are loaded with chemicals.

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

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. That is in large part because it's so universally regarded as cheap and greasy. Another problem is that terms like "fresh," ''real" and "healthy" have different meanings to different people.

Some companies are purging recipes of chemicals people might find unappetizing. PepsiCo, for instance, said it would remove brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade. The move came after a petition by a teenager. It complained the substance 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:

McDonald's USA President Mike Andres 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.

"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 has new TV ads. They say its new chicken strips are free of artificial preservatives and flavors.

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 planned 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.

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.

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.

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

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