'Clean eating' harder for food companies than it looks

Teresa F. Lindeman

The steady, national swing toward "clean eating" has helped trigger an industry move toward clearing product labels of unpronounceable ingredients. So have the numerous class-action lawsuits chasing multimillion-dollar penalties for consumers who claim they were misled or misfed.

Among the lawsuits filed this year alone are cases targeting trans fat in Heinz's Ore-Ida Extra Crispy fries, complaining about a Kraft shredded cheese product labeled "natural cheese," and blaming Ritz crackers and Cheerios cereal for gluten issues.

In July, Nestle and Gerber were sued in Florida for "deceiving consumers about the fruit and vegetable content and the nutritional and health qualities of Gerber Graduates Puffs."

As Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst with Port Washington, New York, consulting firm NPD Group, put it, many consumers seem to feel: "These foods that I know and loved over the years contain something I didn't expect."

Evolving issues: Companies that spend millions of dollars on marketing and on gathering consumer feedback haven't exactly been caught unaware, but conglomerates with dozens of products sometimes take awhile to shift their recipes. And the food hot spots keep evolving.

Numerous cereals are now made with whole grains, which was a key consumer focus a few years back. Now, Seifer said, many shoppers are worrying about their sugar intake or hoping to add more protein to their diets.

Interest in genetically modified organisms or GMOs was one of the fastest growing areas of concern between 2010 and 2014, according to NPD's research. Yet ballot initiatives to require GMOs be listed on labels kept failing around the country, Seifer said.

The Food Marketing Institute, a trade group in Arlington, Virginia, also has tracked a rise in interest in GMOs, although it found only around one-quarter of shoppers say they actually seek out non-GMO food products.

"More sophisticated analysis further indicates that this active engagement in GMO avoidance is most strongly aligned with an interest in minimal processing, rather than with nutrient avoidance or seeking," the trade group reported in its recent report on grocery shopper trends.