Is an announcement that Pizza Hut and Taco Bell artificial ingredients will be replaced with “natural alternatives” by the end of 2015 meaningful or just hype?
It’s certainly a trend. A wide range of fast food (also know as “quick service”) giants are trying to appeal to consumers with healthier menu items. Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, which are both owned by Yum! Brands, are the most recent major chains to announce a healthy move. The fast food giants have pledged to phase out of “artificial ingredients” (flavors and colors) and replace them with “natural alternatives” by the end of 2015.
Pizza Hut is the first national chain to commit to change to its ingredients standards, starting with the removal of artificial flavors and colors, from its pizzas by no later than the end of July 2015.
According to WS News Publishers, the Pizza Hut culinary team has been working for more than a year with its suppliers to reformulate its menu, removing many of the artificial additives that have become common across the fast food industry supply chain.
The effort has meant continuous testing and redevelopment of products, all done to preserve the flavor people have come to expect from the brand but also to meet the desire of recently’s customers who seek to know more about what’s in their food.
WS News Publishers notes that Pizza Hut already makes some food marketing claim. They cite the facts that Pizza Hut markets their Italian sausage as “all natural” and as being sourced from U.S. farmers. They market their meatballs as being free of any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, and their pizza marinara sauce as being free of added sugar or oil and their cheese as being made from 100% whole milk mozzarella.
The article also notes that in July, Pizza Hut will introduce an interactive nutrition calculator and allergen tool to its website and mobile app that will “better enable customers to tailor Pizza Hut menu items to their needs.”
Taco Bell, is also making some food marketing changes. For example, the chain is moving from “black pepper flavor,” to using actual black pepper in its seasoned beef. They will also replace the artificial dye Yellow No. 6 from its nacho cheese, artificial dye Blue No. 1 from its avocado ranch dressing and carmine, a bright pigment, from its red tortilla strips.
Do these moves make fast food healthier? Maybe by a fraction, but fundamentally, I don’t think so. As I have said before, and as Nick Stockton recently wrote in Wired, no one can really know what the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut pledge really means. Those of us who follow sustainability and food marketing know that the term ‘natural’ can mean just about anything because it has no enforceable nutritional meaning. The FDA refuses to define it and instead publicly admits: “it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” Thus, the FDA allows any food product that does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances to be labeled ‘natural.’
Granted, the Bell and the Hut (both owned by Yum! Brands) each offered some specifics, but without a standardized, enforceable definition, there’s no guarantee that they’ll follow through. Or maybe they will, and in that case the lack of an enforceable definition for ‘natural’ will hurt them, as other companies looking to cash in on natural’s now-enriched branding exploit the label with crappy products.
As a result of this regulatory loophole, the term ‘natural’ is a commonly used greenwash tactic (the Sin of Vagueness). A wide assortment of products, ranging from Skinnygirl Cocktails to Frito Lay’s SunChips to Wesson Oil, have been guilty of this marketing ploy.
As of February 4, 2015, Yum! Brands it operated approximately 41,000 restaurants in 120 countries and territories primarily under the KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell brands.