KANSAS CITY — It would be difficult to identify a packaged food company that hasn’t tackled the clean label phenomenon as part of its research and development strategy. Major players across the industry are reformulating iconic brands to eliminate artificial dyes and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame and more in an effort to restore growth in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

But, as General Mills, Inc. recently learned, not every consumer is clamoring for simple ingredients, especially at the expense of taste. The Minneapolis-based company has announced plans to begin offering Classic Trix cereal with synthetic colors after consumers complained about the newer “all-natural” recipe introduced last year.

Classic Trix
General Mills is bringing back its classic Trix recipe, featuring synthetic colored cereal pieces.

“Our Trix fans have been calling us, e-mailing us and reaching out to us on social media asking if we would consider bringing back the original formulation of Trix cereal with its vibrant colors,” said Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman, on Sept. 22. “As a result, we are launching ‘Classic Trix’ to fill these consumer requests.  We will continue to offer our current formulation of Trix with no artificial flavors and no colors from artificial sources, which has its own fan base, along with Classic Trix. So both products will be available for consumers. Consumers have differing food preferences, and we heard from many Trix fans that they missed the bright vibrant colors and the nostalgic taste of the classic Trix cereal.” 

Chipotle Mexican Grill may be facing similar backlash over its recent roll-out of queso. Per the burrito chain’s strict ingredient standards, the cheese dip, “unlike typical quesos… doesn't contain industrial additives like gums and artificial stabilizers,” but rather it is made with a “combination of simple ingredients you're likely to recognize,” according to the company.

Seems too good to be true? Probably so.

Chipotle queso
Chipotle's new queso does not contain gums or artificial stabilizers.

In the two weeks since launching, the most requested menu item by Chipotle customers has been the subject of scores of scathing on-line reviews describing the queso as “gritty,” “bland” and a “crime against cheese.” With taste and texture failing to meet consumer expectations, the recipe’s simple ingredient list is likely not enough to draw repeat sales. Analysts predict the less-than-favorable reception of Chipotle’s queso may further hamper the chain’s recovery following its food safety crisis nearly two years ago.

David Portalatin, NPD Group
David Portalatin, vice-president and food industry analyst at The NPD Group

“It’s clear consumers have changed their preferences for many of the foods we eat, and the concept of clean eating is definitely a driving factor there; 64% of primary grocery shoppers equate clean eating with healthy eating,” said David Portalatin, vice-president and food industry analyst at The NPD Group and author of “Eating Patterns in America.” “On the flip side of that equation, in many cases what we prefer is something very different. The American consumer today more than in the past has a very personal definition of what healthy eating is, and the goal more than in the past is about a total sense of wellness.”

This new holistic approach to health prioritizes balance, including the occasional indulgence, he said. Consumers are carving out room for treats and rewards as part of an overall goal of eating healthy, and nearly half of consumers agree that taste is more important than nutrition, a number that is climbing in recent years, Mr. Portalatin said.

“In some cases, we have a competing set of food values,” Mr. Portalatin told Food Business News. “We want to embrace the concept of eating clean, but at the same time, we just want it to taste really good. If we can have both in the same item, that’s wonderful.”

David Simply Seeds, Conagra Brands
David Simply Seeds, a range of reduced-sodium roasted sunflower seeds with no artificial flavors or preservatives launched last year, has already been discontinued.

But not always possible. Conagra Brands discovered the limitations of clean label following last year’s launch of David Simply Seeds, a range of reduced-sodium roasted sunflower seeds with no artificial flavors or preservatives. The product has since been discontinued.

“The truth is, unfortunately, we were not able to deliver the product that was meeting the flavor expectations that consumers expected from the David brand,” said Adam Beane, senior brand manager for protein snacking at Conagra Brands, Inc., Chicago, in an interview with Food Business News. “While we were definitely clearing those transparency and nutritional hurdles, we didn’t get there on flavor, and in the snacking world flavor is critically important, and ultimately consumers didn’t respond to the product in the way we had hoped.”

It’s a conundrum many more companies may face as they march toward the deadlines of recently announced commitments to eliminate artificial ingredients from their portfolios.

New vs. old Trix
The taste and colors of the original Trix cereal appeal to consumers' nostalgia.

At the heart of the clean label movement is consumer demand for transparency and authenticity. But these concepts aren’t strictly tied to the perception of natural ingredients, Mr. Portalatin noted.

In the case of Trix, that sugary staple of so many childhood breakfast tables, Mr. Portalatin said, “Trix is an iconic brand that is not a health food; it’s a sweet cereal, and we eat it because we grew up eating it and loved it…

“Authenticity on both sides of this equation play an important role.”