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Top Secret: Kraft Mac-N-Cheese Ditches Artificial Flavors

Words by Leon Kaye

One of the greatest comfort foods of all time is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. First launched by James Lewis Kraft and his eponymous company during the Great Depression, sales took off during World War II because of food rationing -- shoppers could snag two boxes with one ration coupon. Long called Kraft Dinner in Canada, those gooey and neon-colored noodles still resonate with people of all ages on both sides of the border and overseas, even as supposedly healthier and organic versions have given Kraft Mac-N-Cheese a run for its money in recent years.

Sales are still strong at approximately half a billion dollars annually. With success, however, comes scrutiny, as the now Kraft Heinz Co. has been called out on a range of criticisms from its palm oil procurement to the use of artificial colors.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese had long included the artificial colors yellow 5 and 6. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says these additives are safe, but a bevy of advocates say they may cause health risks that range from tumors to hyperactivity in children. One can argue the science and veracity of these studies, or non-studies, but changing consumer preferences have proven to become stubborn market realities. Last April, Kraft responded to the pressure coming from all directions and said it would remove all food preservatives and artificial colors from its original “blue box” Mac-N-Cheese product.

And the company followed through: In fact, it did so last December, but without making any splashy announcement. Kraft Heinz ditched the artificial yellow colorings in favor of dyes derived from annatto, paprika and turmeric. The changes were on those iconic blue boxes the whole time, but they fell under the radar until the company made an announcement last week.

Soon Kraft will start highlighting the changes on its Mac-N-Cheese boxes, hand-in-hand with a social media campaign on outlets including Twitter. The company is encouraging users to share their experiences using the hashtag #didntnotice, which at press time looked to be more of a success with minimal snark directed at Kraft. For those who are interested, there is a “Twitter Party” at noon EST on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Kraft has promised to dole out gifts including boxes of the product, T-shirts and, for a lucky winner, an oversized macaroni-inspired body pillow.

Kraft Heinz is following the lead of several of its competitors that have also promised to eliminate artificial colors from their products. Mars, Inc. recently announced that it would phase-out the use of such food dyes from its food, candy and chocolate products, including those used in its popular M&M candies. Last year, Nestlé USA pledged to remove artificial flavorings and colors from over 250 products. Restaurant chains, including Yum Brands’ Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, as well as Panera Bread, have also jumped on the natural food-coloring bandwagon.

This trend shows the new reality for food companies: After decades of bombarding consumers with marketing messages, consumers have embraced the power of social media, blogs and online petitions and hence are returning the fire -- leaving companies no choice but to change how they conduct business and manufacture their products.

Image credit: Kraft Foods Group

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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