See How Your Favorite Junk Foods Are Getting Reformulated

Kraft Foods announced it was removing the artificial ingredient sorbic acid from its American and White American Singles slices. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Feb 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Little by little, the unhealthy ingredients that are commonly tucked into America's most iconic processed foods are being removed by some of the biggest names in the food industry, from Kraft to Pizza Hut.

Thanks to these recipe tweaks, artificial preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, added salt and sugars, and trans fats are just a few of the ingredients that are disappearing from our food. It's a welcome shift, whether the move comes in response to consumer pressure, government mandate, or food activists who are raising awareness of what’s lurking in the items we feed our families. Judging by recent developments, it appears to be a combination of all three.

This morning Kraft Foods announced it was removing the artificial ingredient sorbic acid from its American and White American Singles slices, saying it is opting to make “convenient foods that have no artificial preservatives and a simpler, more recognizable ingredient list.”

What is it being swapped out for? Natamycin, a natural mold inhibitor and a “proprietary ingredient and blend.”

Sandwich chain Subway grabbed headlines last week by agreeing to remove azodicarbonamide from its bread after food activist Vani Hari targeted the company. Pizza Hut is also banning the ingredient—known for its use in yoga mats—in dinner rolls at some locations.

Today also brought the news that Chick-fil-A would be making the switch to chicken raised without antibiotics. Why? A company tweet sums it up:

There's more.

Chick-fil-A is also reformulating salad dressings and sauces; it will remove ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes. Nearly two dozen food companies—ranging from Heinz to Butterball to Unilever—have reduced the sodium content in the products they sell. Starbucks dumped cochineal extract, a bug-based dye, from its menu after customers objected. Yes, bugs. PepsiCo nixed brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade after the use of the flame retardant ignited a consumer backlash. And the FDA’s recent announcement that it would be taking further steps to reduce trans fats in products also prompted food makers to reformulate a bevy of products.

When large companies make changes to their ingredients, it can benefit consumers because of the ripple effect it has within the industry and also because of their broad reach, said nutritionist Ashley Koff, RD. But companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.

“I fundamentally don’t believe a company will reformulate unless they can sell more product,” says Koff. “What we’re seeing is because of a growing contingency of concern by consumers, supported by bloggers and experts raising awareness.”

While Kraft may have tweaked its plastic-wrapped cheese product to remove an artificial ingredient, its portfolio still includes plenty of products that wouldn’t be able to boast “All Natural” on the label.

“We need to pay attention to that part,” says Koff. “And look at the time frame. Subway has said they’ll remove [azodicarbonamide], but they don’t provide a date by which they’re doing it, and they’re not saying they’ll source meat raised without antibiotics. They could be doing so much more.”