Kraft Heinz quietly changes its Mac & Cheese recipe
March 7, 2016 11:40 PM
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Craig Kilborn in new Kraft macaroni and cheese television ad.
By Teresa F. Lindeman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For decades, Kraft Mac & Cheese has been an inexpensive backup family meal and a cabinet staple. But, like many iconic products from big food companies, it has come under attack in recent years for the less-than-natural items on its ingredient panel.
Turns out people may not have been reading those panels that closely lately.
Back in December, the Kraft Heinz Co. began quietly restocking store shelves with blue boxes filled with pasta and seasonings made using its new recipe. Paprika, annatto and turmeric have replaced yellow dye 5 and 6.
By the company’s calculations, hardly anybody noticed.
Kraft Heinz has been tracking social media sites — the kind used by people who have been using online petitions to demand the recipe be changed for the last few years — and has seen no change in activity levels.
“The comments are no more or no less,” said Gregory Guidotti, vice president of meals at Kraft Heinz. Mr. Guidotti had been with Kraft Foods before it merged last year with the H.J. Heinz Co. The merged company is co-headquartered in Pittsburgh and Chicago.
The social media barometer works for a product like this one because it pops up regularly on such sites. In February, a comment that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump might be boycotting Nabisco and Oreos drew this response from @jwharris: ”If he disses Kraft Mac & Cheese, he loses the toddler vote instantly.”
Or as @bleas10 tweeted, “Being home alone for the night is cool until you realize your best option for dinner is Kraft Mac n cheese.”
While many of America’s big food companies have embedded themselves in people’s childhood memories, now they’re fighting to stay on consumers’ shopping lists by responding to demands to offer more natural ingredients and more carefully sourced items.
Last week, Kraft Heinz announced it would begin using only cage-free eggs — eggs from hens given more freedom to move around — another industry trend responding to demand from consumers and advocacy groups.
In June, Kellogg’s quoted research saying 51 percent of people look for food with recognizable ingredients as it touted its Origins line of six cereals, granolas and muesli “prepared simply, with no artificial flavors or hydrogenated oils.” That same month, Nestle USA promised it would remove artificial flavors and reduce sodium in more than 250 products sold under brand name likes DiGiorno, Tombstone, California Pizza Kitchen and Hot Pockets.
Recipe changes can be especially tricky. Pittsburgh-based Heinz heard an outcry a few years ago when it announced plans to cut back on sodium in its flagship ketchup, as fans feared it would change the taste.
Calls for food companies to stop using artificial dyes have picked up volume in recent years, with groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to take a look at recent research connecting them with behavioral issues in some children.
In April, Kraft said it would remove them from its Mac & Cheese.
Mr. Guidotti said Kraft Heinz is well aware that consumers want to feel better about the ingredients in their food, even as it doesn’t want to risk hurting sales of an important product.
He called Kraft Mac & Cheese “the gold standard” in its segment — a reference to its popularity, not its almost glow-in-the-dark color.
Tests to change the recipe began more than three years ago, he said, with the company running its efforts by focus groups and visiting consumers in their homes as they cooked dinner for the kids.
Taste wasn’t the only issue. That bright yellow glow is part of the appeal.
The new ingredients are a bit more expensive, Mr. Guidotti conceded.
Kraft Heinz is now launching an ambitious advertising campaign — think TV, print, online, social media all explaining “It’s changed. But it hasn’’t.” — meant to label the stealth product change as the world’s largest blind taste test with more than 50 million boxes sold.
The “taste test” could have been disrupted had someone kicked up a fuss.
Research from consulting firm NPD Group showed that, in 2014, just over 21 percent of adults said they do not look at nutrition facts labels. That’s up from 15.8 percent in 2004.
At least one consumer tweeted a complaint about the new formula last month. The company responded to @juliaagabes by saying, “While we replaced the artificial dyes w/ paprika, annatto & turmeric, your Mac & Cheese should taste the same as it always has.”
If there had been more conversations like that and they’d started to gain some traction, Mr. Guidotti said Kraft Heinz was ready to jump on the development.
“This is a big bet and we plan accordingly,” he said., adding, “It’s been an exciting few months.”
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