Did You Even Notice Your Kraft Mac & Cheese Has No Artificial Ingredients?

The company behind the 'iconic Blue Box' crows about putting one over on consumers.
(Image: YouTube)
Mar 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You’ve got to hand it to the PR wizards at giant food maker Kraft Heinz: It takes a bit of audacity to tell an entire country, “You’ve been duped!,” and spin it as a good thing.

Last year, following mounting feedback from consumers and critics alike, the maker of the world’s top-selling macaroni and cheese said that it would remove all artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes from what it calls its “iconic Blue Box.” And it did—only it didn’t tell consumers. Instead, the company conducted what it is now billing as “the largest blind taste test in history.” It started selling its Blue Box mac and cheese sans the artificial ingredients in December, but instead of hyping the bejesus out of the historic change, it simply updated the tiny type on the ingredient list and waited to see if consumers would notice the difference. More than 50 million boxes later, apparently no one has.

“As we considered changing the ingredients of our classic Blue Box, we did so knowing we had to maintain our iconic look, taste and texture,” Greg Guidotti, vice president of meals at Kraft Heinz, said in a statement. “We’d invite Americans to try our new recipe, but they most likely already have.” The most noticeable change—or unnoticeable, I guess—is Kraft Heinz’s move to replace the artificial yellow dyes that gave the Blue Box product its signature synthetic cheesy glow with paprika, annatto, and turmeric.

To be sure, the company’s say-nothing-and-see-if-they-notice strategy is arguably only radical at its 50-million-box scale. After all, parents have long essentially played the same trick on their kids, trying to sneak better-for-you ingredients past the picky palates of unsuspecting toddlers. But it points to the conundrum big food companies face as they try to satisfy growing consumer demand for foods perceived as more natural while at the same time protecting the market share of established brands worth billions of dollars. Just as a kid might eat artfully disguised veggies one day and throw a tantrum over the same food the next, things do not always go smoothly.

Related: Dye Job: Just How Much Artificial Coloring Is in That?

Among the most legendary of brand missteps—long before the craze for all-natural ingredients—was Coke’s attempt to reformulate its flagship soda in the mid-1980s, which led to a massive consumer backlash that the company spent years trying to recover from. Developing new product lines to cater to consumers’ changing tastes is one option: Just this week, Mondelez International, which owns Nabisco, announced its first new snack brand in more than a decade, a line of snack crisps called Good Thins that are made with no artificial flavors or colors and no high-fructose corn syrup.

Building market share for new products is expensive and time-consuming, even as messing with the appearance or taste of an established brand is risky. Candy maker Mars appears to be taking a different tack, vowing to eliminate artificial colors from its M&Ms over the next five (long) years while stressing that it will “maintain the vibrant, fun colors consumers have come to expect from the company’s beloved brands.” Sometimes, it seems, there’s just no way to reconcile the move toward more natural ingredients with an established brand’s signature unnatural appearance: When General Mills released a new version of Trix cereal made without the use of artificial colors, the party-hued breakfast staple was missing its blue and green crisps, as the company was reportedly unable to find natural substitutes for those colors.

Kraft Heinz seems to feel as if it has scored something of a PR coup in its stealth rollout of its reformulated mac and cheese. But in its eager recounting of its sneaky strategy on its website, the company may have unwittingly evoked some of the very suspicions consumers increasingly have about the machinations of big food makers that the company is trying to avoid. Do you see it? Scroll down to where Kraft Heinz starts surreptitiously selling the new mac and cheese. “Then we waited to see if people would notice,” the company says, and like some latter-day Big Brother, Kraft Heinz “watched people eat it,” “watched people love it,” “caught babysitters skimming a little off the top,” “saw grandmas having seconds,” “watched dads buy some more,” and “watched moms serve it to their kids.”

That’s a lot of creepy-sounding surveillance in this post-Snowden era. When you think about it, it’s an awful lot of secretiveness surrounding something that was, after all, supposed to be about greater transparency in the company's relationship with its consumers.