Natural Causes

Swapping the "petroleum-based dye" in M&Ms for one derived from algae requires FDA approval, reports Stephanie Strom in The New York Times (12/31/13). This swap-out actually hasn’t happened yet, but it’s one example of the challenges food companies face when responding to consumer demands for healthier products. Those demands have grown louder and more urgent with the rise of the social-media megaphone, but such changes can be complicated and slow. Consider, for example, that there are "nearly 100 ingredients in a Chick-fil-A sandwich."

One of those ingredients is TBHQ, a preservative derived from butane – a fact brought to light by Vani Hari, "a blogger known as the Food Babe." She also posted a recipe for an imitation Chick-fil-A sandwich "but with only 13 ingredients, none of them artificial." (link) Chik-fil-A has met with Vani as part of "a long-term effort to improve and enhance its menu to give consumers what they want." At Kraft, meanwhile, it "took about a year and a half to replace" petroleum-based dyes "with colorings derived from spices like turmeric and paprika" in some of its mac-and-cheese products.

Both Chik-fil-A and Kraft first must "work with suppliers to determine what’s possible, then suppliers have to make the new ingredient in bulk." Then the product has to be tested and tweaked to make sure that the natural ingredients haven’t altered the artificially flavored goodness consumers know and love. Mars is still working on the algae-dye substitute for its M&Ms, but in the meantime Renee Shutters, the consumer who lobbied for it, says she’s eliminated all petroleum-based dyes from her son’s diet, and says this has improved his focus and "made him more cooperative."

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