Switching to Healthy Ingredients Is Riskier for Brands Than You Might Think

As of Thursday, patrons of Dunkin’ Donuts could step into the shops and behold a small miracle—racks and racks of those dizzyingly colorful donuts, all of them chemical free. After much work, the donut chain finally gave the boot to artificial coloring (though some limited-edition donuts may still contain it).

“Eliminating artificial dyes from our donuts is an incredible milestone,” CMO Tony Weisman said in a statement, beaming that Dunkin’ will now furnish customers “with simpler ingredients while still delivering the delicious taste and vivid colors expected with our donuts.”

Does this announcement have a familiar ring? It should. If you’ve paid any attention to menu boards and ingredient lists in the past few years, you’ve watched one major brand after another frantically trying to offload artificial additives, preservatives, flavors, colors and anything else that can’t pass for “natural.” Dunkin’ Donuts is only the latest chain to do it.

But as packaged-foods and restaurant brands race to ditch all the artificial stuff—an effort that will, presumably, reward them with the patronage of finicky and health-conscious consumers—they’re dealing with a kind of Catch-22 that rarely makes headlines. Food brands have little choice but to adopt these so-called clean ingredient lists, but their “reward” usually includes high conversion costs and complex sourcing problems. And when the reformulated products finally come out, they risk alienating some of the very same customers the companies are trying so hard to please.

Dunkin Donuts

Consumers, says Mintel global food and drink analyst Jenny Zegler, have little concept of how tough these changes can be and tend to take the results for granted.

“It’s really hard, from a consumer perspective, to understand that you can’t just flip the switch [for healthier products],” she says. For a brand as large as Dunkin’ Donuts especially, “it’s really difficult to find the ingredients that are substitutes for these artificial colors that look the same and taste the same—and cost the same.”

Going clear

Dunkin’ Donuts joins a very long list of brands that have invested time and money in reformulating recipes historically heavy with artificial stuff. It all got going in earnest in 2015, when a slew of brands including Campbell Soup Company, Nestle, General Mills, Kraft and Chipotle announced pledges to clean up their ingredient lists.

The ranks have only grown since then. In 2016, McDonald’s announced it would remove artificial preservatives from items including Chicken McNuggets and its biscuit breakfast sandwiches, while candy giant Mars pledged to banish all artificial colors “from its human food products.”

Last year saw still more major companies getting in on the act. In May, Oscar Mayer made headlines when it promised to take all the byproducts, artificial preservatives and added nitrates out of its hot dogs. August saw an announcement from Target to banish artificial ingredients from its private-label Simply Balanced and Market Pantry brands, while grocery chain Hy-Vee announced it would eliminate 200 artificial ingredients and “synthetic chemicals” from a thousand of its products. Then, in September, Smoothie King announced its “Cleaning Blending” initiative that will nix artificial flavors, colors, preservatives and added hormones from all of its drinks, which will now be made with non-GMO fruits and vegetables.