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Fast-food diners fuel additive-free revolution

05/28/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/27/2016 05:59 EDT
Fast-food companies known for their greasy, fatty indulgences are rapidly changing their menus to capitalize on the successful strategies of newer players who lure customers with fresh foods and simple ingredients.

But the companies that have traditionally fed our guilty pleasures aren't necessarily moving away from their high-calorie, high-fat roots.

Instead, they're embracing a version of health today's consumers demand: transparency about how their food is made and what goes into it.

"It's becoming less and less about the amount of calories and the amount of fat as to what actually they're eating and what they're putting into their bodies," says Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights for Technomic, a U.S. market research firm that also tracks the Canadian food industry.

Traditionally 'unhealthy' food less of a concern

This focus on a new type of healthy food has helped fuel the growth of so-called fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill and U.S.-based Panera Bread.

Chipotle prides itself on serving "food with integrity," according to its website. The company says it uses fresh ingredients without relying on artificial flavours or fillers, buys ethically raised animals and recently announced it will no longer serve dishes containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Despite this, "it's quite unhealthy," Weikel says of Chipotle's offerings. In the restaurants, people build their own burritos that can easily surpass 1,000 calories depending on the toppings. That is half the calories Canada's Food Guide recommends women between 31 and 50 years old who are somewhat active eat daily, and more than one-third of the calories men in the same demographic need.

Consumers no longer necessarily consider healthy foods to be the traditional low-calorie, low-fat dishes, Weikel says. Their new definition focuses more on fresh, high-quality, unprocessed and additive-free foods. 

"All of those things are starting to roll more into their idea of health and quality."

People then reason that a higher calorie and fat meal can be OK to eat if it's not processed, fried and full of trans fat, she says.

It's not up to the company to decide what ingredients are good or bad, Taco Bell's chief food innovation officer, Liz Matthews, told BuzzFeed News shortly after the company announced changes to its menu. 

"We're just here to listen to our customers and they want less in their food and they want simpler ingredients."

Good spin for fast-food places

Following in the fast-casual companies' footsteps, Taco Bell and other major fast-food chains are ditching unpronounceable ingredients, like azodicarbonamide, an additive also found in yoga mats and shoe soles that Subway once used in its bread.

Taco Bell — home of the taco in a Doritos nacho cheese-flavoured shell — announced this week it would stop using artificial flavours and colours in most of its food by the end of the year. The company will also work to remove additives, like added trans fat, You asked if trans fat is an additive, that's the example they use in their statement "added trans fat" and some artificial preservatives by the end of 2017.

Pizza Hut, which is owned by the same operator as Taco Bell, will also remove artificial flavours and colours by the end of July.

These and other fast-food companies making similar changes are "following this perceptual shift in what consumers see as being better for them," says Weikel.

It's a good spin for fast-food restaurants because it doesn't negatively impact how customers perceive taste, she says. By marketing fresh, whole ingredients, companies actually enhance how healthy and tasty customers believe the food is.

People don't want to feel guilty about buying fast food, she says, and non-artificial ingredients help customers feel better about their purchase.

Consumers demand transparency

It's "quite impressive" how quickly both restaurants and food companies, like Pepsi and Kraft, are eliminating artificial ingredients, says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor for the University of Guelph's food institute who is currently a visiting professor at Austria's University of Innsbruck.

Consumer curiosity about the food industry is driving that speedy response, he says, as more people demand transparency about how companies produce the food they consume.

Taco Bell and Pizza Hut both claim this is partly behind their decision to eliminate some additives. 

"Today's customers are more curious and interested in food than ever," Taco Bell's Matthews said in a statement. "They want to understand what they're eating and expect to know more about it."

Pizza Hut CEO David Gibbs agreed, saying people want "to understand the ingredients that make up the foods they enjoy."

Customers turn to the internet to discuss their questions and concerns about the industry. 

Blogger Vani Hari of Charlotte, N.C., also known as the Food Babe, claims credit for successfully petitioning Kraft to change its macaroni and cheese ingredients and Subway to alter its bread recipes.

Social media is "a huge factor" in raising people's awareness about ingredients, Charlebois says.

"More and more, the politics of food is trumping the economics of food," he says.

Instead of opting for cheap, convenient and tasty products, consumers want to know all aspects of how food is produced.

They not only care about ingredients, but also where the food comes from, how it is processed and labour conditions, says Charlebois, noting that also includes wondering why many fast-food workers receive a paltry minimum wage.

"There's an array of issues that we didn't even talk about 10 years ago and now people want answers."

As consumers demand food they understand, companies will have to continuously adapt. Charlebois predicts the next major debate will centre on nanotechnology, which produces nanoparticles that are already present in our food and enhance its taste.

It's good that consumers are demanding more information and gaining knowledge, he says.

"As the system empowers consumers more and more, it will only make the food industry more disciplined."

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