How food makers, restaurant chains are cleaning up their labels

Restaurant chains and food makers of all sizes are increasingly cooking up food and drink recipes with a focus on health, nutrition and clean ingredients, to meet growing consumer demand.

Annual lists for 2018 from a variety of sources counted health, wellness, sustainability and transparency among the hot food-and-beverage trends and clean-label initiatives are resonating with consumers.

Transparency in product labeling and responsible product sourcing made the Specialty Food Association’s list of hot 2018 trends, along with growing demand for natural sweeteners like date sugar and sorghum syrup. Globally, the market for health and wellness products is on track to hit $815 billion in three years, up from $686 billion in 2016, according to Euromonitor International.

In recent years, many global food makers including Nestle, Kellogg and Campbell Soup have launched clean-label initiatives, and some restaurant chains have also committed to taking artificial ingredients off the menu.

Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread both made news when they removed artificial ingredients from their menus, and Panera launched a consulting program this year to share its clean-label expertise with other restaurants.  Dunkin’ Donuts announced earlier this year that it had replaced synthetic coloring with natural ingredients. In 2017, fast-casual Italian chain Fazoli’s invested $1.5 million to revamp its menu, removing 81 artificial ingredients, and Caribou Coffee banned about 70 ingredients under its new clean label standards.

Smoothie King built its clean label one ingredient at a time

Smoothie King, which recently opened its 1,000th location, has been on a mission to create smoothies with a focus on wellness since the beginning, said owner and CEO Wan Kim. The chain started out in 1973 as a better-for-you alternative, but through the years competition grew and, more recently, consumers’ understanding of health and wellness has grown more sophisticated.

Kim, who began as a Smoothie King franchisee in South Korea and bought the company in 2012, has since led health and wellness-focused initiatives aimed at appealing to today’s consumers. Over the past few years, a program called the Cleaner Blending initiative has sought to remove GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, added sugars and other artificial ingredients from all of the chain’s smoothies.

The effort began with evaluating a list of 150 different ingredients and painstakingly finding clean-label replacements. Sourcing proved challenging, with some suppliers getting on board and others refusing to change, Kim said.

“At the same time, we wanted to make sure our flavors were still there,” he said. “If it’s not delicious, it doesn’t matter how healthy it is. So we had to be making sure people really like the flavors.”

For some ingredients that just couldn’t be done, which meant dropping some drinks from the menu entirely.

Today, instead of starting with a flavor profile, the chain starts with a need it wants to help customers meet, from morning drinks that help them gear up for the day to smoothies designed to aid in fulfilling fitness and weight loss goals. 

"With every product, we talk about the purpose first," Kim said. "It's all about the purpose, and then we think about the flavor. We want to be an integral part of every health and fitness journey."

That mission has attracted fitness-focused franchisees, including multi-unit Planet Fitness franchisees, some of whom are building standalone Smoothie King stores near their gyms.

Another Smoothie King wellness initiative includes partnering with others to create mission-specific smoothies. The Daily Warrior, created in partnership with the American Cancer Society, is formulated to help cancer patients maintain weight as they go through chemotherapy. And the company also teamed with prenatal vitamin maker Premama to make a smoothie to aid the nutrition of expectant mothers.

PepsiCo puts the focus on wellness startups

Nutrition and wellness are also key concerns for global food and beverage makers like PepsiCo, which is expanding an accelerator program launched in Europe last year. The company will offer cash and mentoring help to North American startup and growth-stage companies focused on launching the next wave of healthier products.

The accelerator program, dubbed the Nutrition Greenhouse, selects 10 companies for each class. Each company gets $20,000 and a mentor from PepsiCo, and the company judged to have done the most with their money at the end of the project gets $100,000.

The program helps the startups grow, but it also helps PepsiCo stay plugged in with the trends and form relationships with the health and wellness brands of the future, said Daniel Grubbs, managing director of the PepsiCo Ventures Group.

“From a PepsiCo standpoint, it’s all about collaboration and being on the forefront of innovation.”

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