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How consumer worries are driving menu makeovers

For years, Americans have heard warnings and and expressed worries about what’s in their food, from artificial ingredients to antibiotics. Increasingly, the food industry is taking notice and making changes. What do consumers need to keep in mind about a flurry of recent announcements? Gwen Ifill talks to Michael Moss, author of "Sugar Salt Fat," and Allison Aubrey of NPR.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    For years, consumers have heard warnings and worries over what's in their food. Increasingly, the industry is taking notice, too.

    The Panera chain was the latest to make a move. It announced plans to remove 150 or more artificial ingredients, sweeteners, and colors by the end of next year. Last week, Chipotle said it plans to remove many genetically modified ingredients. Kraft has also said it will eliminate synthetic colors and artificial preservatives from its famous orange-colored macaroni and cheese. And Tyson's chicken has pledged to phase out the use of antibiotics in the production of chickens by 2017.

    Some of these changes have been praised. Some have been met with skepticism.

    We look at what's happening, and what consumers should keep in mind, with Allison Aubrey, who covers food and nutrition for NPR, and Michael Moss, the author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."

    Welcome to you both.

    Allison Aubrey, why are these companies making these moves now? How dangerous is the problem they're trying to fix?

  • ALLISON AUBREY, NPR:

    I think, in a word, the reason why these companies are making these changes now is that they're talking to their customers, and consumer sentiment has really changed. People want things that are natural. People have — seem to have developed an allergy to something that seems artificial.

    So, Panera, for instance, today, I talked to its lead chef. And what he told me is that, starting a couple of years ago, they started looking into all of the additives in their food. They came up with hundreds of things in the food supply. And they started asking two questions: What is this stuff and why is it there? When they found things that they didn't know why it was there, or there was a cosmetic reason for it being, they decided, hey, let's look for a work-around.

    And probably the best example of this is mozzarella. People had become accustomed to very, very white mozzarella. It's often treated with titanium dioxide to make it — sort of bleach it. And so Panera looked at that and said, well, you know, if our mozzarella isn't the whitest shade of white, then let's take it out. So they did.

    And consumers like that kind of thing. Consumers like the idea of simpler ingredients.

    Well, Michael Moss, let's talk about that. Titanium dioxide sounds pretty dangerous. But we also are talking about antibiotics in chicken, which makes a really big chicken, right, really big chickens. I wonder how, well, dangerous that really is.

    MICHAEL MOSS, Author, "Salt Sugar Fat": Well, the danger is the key word here.

    I think many of these ingredients are simply artificial, not wholesome-sounding, but really sort of pose no danger. I was looking at the Panera list. And there's all sorts of things in there that actually pose no health risk at all to anybody, including vanilla.

    And then I ask the company why, and they go, well, look, we just prefer to switch over from an artificial vanilla to the real thing. And I think Allison really sort of hit a point here. Much of what this is about are these food giants trying to regain the trust of customers who are caring more and more about what they put in their bodies and caring less and less for some of the strategies we have seen from the processed food industry over the years.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, for instance, Allison, genetically modified ingredients carries the smack of something artificial, which isn't good for you, but how do you get that out of a food chain for a sandwich shop, for instance, where it might affect the sandwich bun, the meat in the sandwich?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Well, for instance, if you take the sandwich as an example, a few years ago, there was an episode where Subway found itself in a kerfuffle over a compound called azodicarbonamide.

    And people were saying, why is this compound in my Subway bread? It turns out azodicarbonamide is also found in yoga mats because it works on texture, and in dough it helps soften up or keep the right texture for dough. In yoga mats, it is sort of a plasticizer that softens out or gives a yoga mat the right consistency.

    Now, it seems crazy, right, that you would have the same compound in a yoga mat as you have in your bread. So you start asking a few question, why is this in here, is there a risk? Well, the risks, according to the FDA, are nonexistent when it comes to the amounts that are found in the bread. Scientists love to point out that the dose is the poison, the dose makes the poison, right?

    So there have been some studies where you look at industrial workers who are exposed to azodicarbonamide, and you start to see issues of breathing or asthma, but in the tiny, tiny doses that we would be exposed to them in bread, the FDA has said, you know, this stuff is OK. The problem is consumer sentiment has shifted and consumers are saying, hey, if this is a compound in my yoga mat, I don't want it in my bread.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, Michael Moss, how much of this is simply about consumer sentiment and business imperative, and how much of this is about making our food healthier, really?

  • MICHAEL MOSS:

    No, I think — I think almost all of it is business imperative.

    And some of these companies really, I think, do deeply care about the health profile of their products. Another factor, though, they're getting more pressure from start-up ventures, you know, low capital, but taking high risks and kind of swooping in and looking at the entire food system in this country like they looked at the telecom industry back in the 1970s.

    So, everything from farming to distribution to warehousing to how you store produce in your kitchen is all being rethought. And I think the food giants are realizing that one of the big myths of them is that they can innovate. And they can't innovate like they used. And they're going to have to turn to these smaller companies for fresh ideas, which these days to people mean natural, simple, plain ingredients I can understand and feed my kids without worrying.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Would labeling be enough, Allison, just — if they just said, this is what's here, or is that something that's unpronounceable just inherently seems dangerous to people?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    I think transparency is only part of the solution, because if you have to do a lot of communication about why something with this long, gobbledygook name of azodicarbonamide is in your food, if it takes you longer than five seconds to explain that, you have sort of lost people.

    And so that's part of the issue here. I think what's happening here is that we're moving to a time when consumers have just accepted whole cloth that simpler is better, that if something isn't cooked the way you would cook it in your own kitchen, then you should be skeptical of it.

    So, that's sort of just where we are as a society.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, Michael Moss, we should be bracing for more of this?

  • MICHAEL MOSS:

    Bracing for more, and I'm thinking waiters and waitresses are going to be bracing for more customers coming in going, not just kind of where is that beef from, but, like, where is that vanilla from and what's up with that sunflower oil? Is it organic or not and how many pesticides?

    Yes, you kind of pine for the days when food was food, and you ate what your mom and dad served. You didn't snack between meals. But I think this is all good. I think that caring about this stuff, up to a point, as long as we don't start freaking out too much and lose that basic love for food, which is what it should be all about, this is all good.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Michael Moss, author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and Allison Aubrey of NPR, thank you both so much.

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Thanks so much for having me.

  • MICHAEL MOSS:

    Thanks, Gwen.

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