Tag Archives: sugar

Diet Pepsi drops aspartame: Gilding the Lily?

PepsiCo just announced that it will be taking the artificial sweetener aspartame out of Diet Pepsi and replacing with another artificial sweetener, sucralose (known more commonly as Splenda®), combined with another sweetener named acesulfame-K (‘Ace-K’), which is a lower cost ’sweetener helper’.

apm-free D Pepsi

The stated reason is to respond to consumer objection to aspartame, as stated by a Pepsi Sr. VP: “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”

The more likely reason is that Diet Pepsi volume is down over 5% in the last year, part of a long-term slide, and nothing so far has worked to reverse the trend.

But this change is unlikely to make a material difference, for a few key reasons.

First, let me risk public embarrassment to try to establish my bona fides.  I marketed aspartame (Equal® Sweetener) for 6 years, and sucralose (Splenda) for another 5.  Did a lot of consumer research during those years.

DavesSweetenerBonaFides

Left: failing the dorky marketer test. Right: at a trade show, excitedly pitching sweeteners

Here’s why I don’t think this will make a difference:

1) Consumers generally don’t know what’s in their diet soda to begin with.  When asked open-endedly about ingredients in diet sodas, they have a vague notion that they contain artificial sweeteners, but the sweetener is not often mentioned by name.  When prompted, they will recognize aspartame.  But while consumers may theatrically claim that they avoid aspartame when they’re in a focus group, in reality very few actually check labels.

2) Consumers are generally full of it when it comes to stated preferences.  They will tell you all day long that they want less fat, less sugar, less salt, etc – – but in reality they will rarely change ingrained habits if there’s even the slightest risk of compromise (such as taste or cost).

3) Non-users or lapsed users have a handy reason for why they don’t use the product.  Aspartame has enough negative PR that it is an easy, politically correct and inarguable reason as to why surveyed consumers aren’t using the product.  But the true answer is a more complicated mix of dynamics including macro consumption trends, emergence of new alternatives, and changing demographics (‘modern’ diet sodas were first introduced, and gained loyal followings, in the early 1980s).

4) Changing out one artificial sweetener for another just reminds consumers that diet sodas generally contain artificial sweeteners.  Not a great plan to bring in new users. 

5) Changing ingredients to meet claimed consumer preferences is no guarantee of success.  3 years ago ConAgra changed its Hunt’s ketchup back to High Fructose Corn Sugar after a 2-year switch to sugar, ostensibly to answer consumer objections to HFCS.  Sales volumes showed that consumers didn’t really care.

Hunts No HFCS

6) Most importantly, consumers like their products the way they are.  ANY CHANGE in a loyal user’s product formulation will arouse suspicion.  A product as iconic as Diet Pepsi owes its unique taste to the specific combination of sweeteners in its formula.  It is impossible to improve the taste of Diet Pepsi, because its ideal is defined by its current taste.  So any change will alienate current users, who are currently drinking it even knowing in the back of their minds that it contains an artificial sweetener.

Ironically, this is the same category where New Coke infamously demonstrated what happens when you change the formulation of a well-loved product.  It will be interesting to see whether this ‘New Diet Pepsi’ fares any better.

Below is an introductory spot for New Coke in 1985.  In retrospect, a product and spokesperson that ultimately followed similar paths, albeit on different timing.

Top 5 Observations! – National Restaurant Show (Part 2)

Posted on

This is part 2 of coverage of the 2014 National Restaurant Association show – too much great stuff to fit into one post.

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I’ve ranked my top 10 observations; this post features my Top 5.

(If you missed my previous post, you can see #6-10 here).

Again, all links are live so please click through with abandon.

OBSERVATION #5.  School Lunch is a Battleground.

Remember when school lunch was a PBJ, apple and Twinkie in a paper bag or Superman lunchbox? How many ways would that not work now?

Two trends are making school lunch planning fiendishly difficult.

A) FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 sets limits for sodium, fat, sugar and calories, among other things.
– What’s happened is that compliant healthy meals are often too skimpy (or not tasty), kids are not eating them, and some schools are dropping out because they are losing money (even with subsidies).

Check out these funny-yet-sad tweets from kids complaining about their lunch offering:

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 3.22.14 PM

B) Separately, allergens (like nuts) are becoming more of a center of the plate issue.

The result of all this is that there were numerous products specifically positioned as not only allergen-free, but also satisfying the school lunch nutritional requirements.

Home Free, Skeeter and Funley’s are on the market touting such mouth-watering claims as ‘Nut Free’, ‘School Compliant’ and ‘Gluten Free’ and other ‘free-from’ things.   Which is a shame, because beneath those claims they all tasted really good – a message that seemed somehow forced into 2nd place.

Cookies

Separately, organizations like Wholesome Tummies are offering alternative programs providing ‘fresh, nutritious and exciting foods’.

There were a lot of school nutritionists asking lots of questions.  And ultimately the market will decide.

 

OBSERVATION #4.  Liquor-flavored meat.

With these two manly ingredients, how could you lose? There were quite a few examples of meat flavored with some sort of macho alcohol. We’ve seen things like Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce for years, but these examples had the flavor infused into the meat.

A few examples:
Family Brands has just introduced meat products infused with Ole Smoky White Lightnin’ Tennessee Moonshine. You can get pulled pork, sausage and other products flavored with with regular, apple pie or other moonshines. They taste great, but don’t overdo it – – you may get Dukes of Hazzard flashbacks.

OleSmoky

– Over at Zoe’s Meats, they’re offering Ghost Pepper Salami with tequila

– And my friends at Kronos Foods were sampling their brand-new Beer Can Chicken, which I can testify is better than anything I get from my smoker.  Perhaps one reason is that they use PBA (Premium Brown Ale), while I use PBR.

OBSERVATION #3.  Food Trucks Mainstreamed.

Food trucks have long been thought by some of as being on the funky fringe of foodservice, operating from recycled ice cream trucks. Well, this year served notice that food trucks are now driving right down the middle of the road.

FoodTruck

FoodTruckInt

Several companies offered custom foodservice trucks, built to spec and coming in at around $150,000. These are impressive, well-equipped, heavy duty vehicles specially built to bring the finest cuisines right to your doorstep.

At that point, whether you go for kimchi, po’ boy, pupusas or paletas is entirely up to you.

 

OBSERVATION #2 – RUNNER-UP:  Kallpod.  ‘What’, you say?

How many times have you had an otherwise great meal spoiled by:
– waiting for a refill on your drink
– waiting for your check
– otherwise having your server disappear into the ether never to be seen again

Well, this tech innovation gets super-high marks because it focuses on diner satisfaction.   What a concept.

The best analogy for Kallpod is the ‘Call Attendant’ button in an airplane – – only in this case it’s on your restaurant table and it’s wirelessly connected to a special Dick Tracy-like device that your server wears.

Kallpod

The concept is simple: you hit a button (refill, check please, etc) and your server gets a small vibration/shock and message like ‘check, table #8’. How great is that?  Awesome, although possibly less so if you’re a server, I suppose.

Reminds me a little of the Burger King Subservient Chicken that was compelled to respond to commands from strangers (shown in redemption video here):

http://adage.com/article/news/burger-king-s-subservient-chicken-video/292953/

So Kallpod offers something for everyone:

– Diners get quicker, better service and for a select few, the opportunity to indulge hidden sadistic tendencies
– Operators convert more drink requests, and can turn tables more quickly
– Servers get the opportunity to see their guests more, and for a select few, the opportunity to indulge hidden masochistic tendencies.

Kidding aside, this is a palm-to-forehead great idea, well executed.

 

And the winning #1 observation at this year’s NRA is:  SCHMACON!  

Yes, Schmacon. It’s not a trend or even a fad, it’s the sort of cosmic occurrence that we unfortunately see all too infrequently in our short time here on this mortal coil.

Schmacon2

My first minutes at NRA, at 9am, took me directly into the olfactory territory that the modest Schmacon booth was invisibly marking.

Schmacon is ‘smoked and cured glazed beef slices’ , but think of it as beef bacon, which by one account tastes like ‘crispy glazed pastrami’ (thanks Kevin Pang). By all accounts it is delicious, as demonstrated by the growing line for samples (of which I had two, for research purposes).

In addition, it is lower in calories, fat and sodium than traditional bacon.  A bit ironically, it is not pork but neither is it kosher.  But who are we to quibble about a technicality?

Schmacon is from Schmaltz Products in the Chicago area – a company with a funny name, but serious deli DNA.

Schmacon was a Food & Beverage 2014 award-winner.  I took home Schmacon literature and a scratch ‘n sniff button to remind me of my experience.  It’s mostly just for foodservice now, but you can taste it for yourself when it hits retail shelves later in the year.

———–

So that’s it for the Top 10.  I do have some Honorable Mentions directly below:

Ice Beer.  Basically a beer slurpee, complete with alcohol.

IceBeer

 

Nutella Poppers.  Like little chocolate beignets – awesome (and proof that carbs are alive and well)

Carbs!

 

Neat meat replacements.  Mixes made from nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients.  Really tasty with great texture.

Neat

Poppies Dough.  Terrific products (but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a little Seinfeld moment…)

Poppies

 

Chicago IFT: Michael Jacobson, CSPI, the Food Babe and the curious impact of social media

I had the privilege of attending a recent meeting of the Chicago Section IFT (Institute for Food Technologists).  The guest speaker was Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Chairman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who spoke about America’s progress in becoming a healthier-eating nation.

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Dr. Michael Jacobson

Over the last 40 years or so, the CSPI has helped to reduce saturated fatssodium and sugar in our food supply, among other things.  While CSPI has often been a thorn in the side of Big Food in America, its efforts have resulted in meaningful change, usually brought about by government mandate (as opposed to corporate altruism).  And Jacobson is no party-line activist –  – he independently assesses the social benefits vs cost on any initiative, including things as controversial/PC as GMOs (he’s open-minded on this, in case you were wondering).

My key takeaway:  regardless of the advances in food science, our chances of becoming a healthier nation lie in the hands (and mouths) of the consumer.  The locus of influence in food and nutrition is becoming decidedly less institutional.

Food Scientists – heal!
Dr. Jacobson offered that while food scientists have culpability in having created most of the ‘Franken-foods’ that he reviles (“…a breakfast cereal that is nothing more than vitamin-enriched marshmallows…”), these scientists now play a key role in creating healthier alternatives that can be adopted by mainstream America.  

Two things occurred to me during Dr. Jacobson’s presentation, illustrating both the weakness and strength of the consumer:

1) You can build it but they will not necessarily come.  These healthier foods need to appeal to intended consumers for this to work, as was brought home by an attendee who commented that her school district’s new, more nutritional lunches, in addition to costing more, are also discarded much more often by the kids.

The problem is that consumers typically don’t want foods that make health claims.  Putting ‘reduced sodium’ on a package, for example, is almost like saying ‘don’t buy me’.

So the conundrum is:  how do you get people to eat healthier foods without them knowing it?  Not easy.

2) According to Dr. Jacobson, the rise in social media has accelerated the process overall, despite consumers’ sometimes misguided crusades.
Consumers, who previously had no voice, are now collectively applying pressure through social media.

Just this week, the so-called ‘Food Babe’ helped prompt the removal of azodicarbonamide from Subway bread, through a petition that is at 78,000 signatures and counting.  We have been unable to detect one shred of relevant credentials in the area of nutrition, food science, or science in general, about the Food Babe.  She apparently has an undergraduate degree in computer science.  But she cleans up well, is able to get access to influential people, and operates a successful blog.  And guess what – she’s helping dictate your food options!  Deal with it.

Vani Hari - the Food Babe

Vani Hari – the Food Babe

Earlier examples of removed ingredients include:
Kraft Singles removing an artificial preservative (sorbic acid)
General Mills’ Cheerios removing GMOs
And that’s just 2014.
Other recent examples are here, including Starbucks, Gatorade, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and Chick-Fil-A.  These are not inexpensive or simple changes to make, and speak to the power of the consumer.

Yes, the consumer is a fickle, capricious creature and quite often prone to acting immediately (or signing petitions) without checking facts.  But overall, the ability to project a collective voice is starting to make a difference in the food landscape – – and on balance, it appears to be for the better.

Butterfly Bakery: Heading back into the cocoon

Today’s news brings us the cautionary tale of Butterfly Bakery, which is no doubt trying to find a cocoon to hide in after an onslaught of mostly self-inflicted pain.  This is primarily a lesson on the importance of transparency, authenticity and speed in the age of 24/7 public scrutiny.

ht_butterfly_bakery_blueberry_muffins_nt_130314_wblog

The short story:  Butterfly Bakery, a small Clifton, NJ baker of special baked goods (e.g. sugar-free, no sugar added, gluten-free, etc), is suffering through its 15 minutes of fame courtesy of the FDA, which forced it to close its doors after discovering that sugar and fat levels in several of its muffin and cookie products were well above what was claimed on the label.  Selected products had 3x the stated levels of sugar and 2x the indicated amount of fat.  This has led to some explanatory statements on the BB Facebook page and caused the charming looking website to be taken down.  The Twitter feed has also stopped.

ButterflyBakeryScreenShot

So — what’s the big deal?  Isn’t this just another case of the government unfairly picking on the little guys while ignoring ‘big business’?  After all, only 3 products of 45 were cited.

Well, yes and no — but mostly no.

– it turns out that the original FDA complaint is almost 2 years old, and that BB was well aware of the issues.  Here is an excerpt from their Facebook statement:  “Butterfly Bakery, Inc. acknowledges the claims in the FDA press release dated March 13, 2013. Butterfly Bakery voluntarily entered into a consent decree and has been working with the FDA and a team of technical and regulatory experts since May 31, 2011, to improve its processes and ensure compliance with all Butterfly Bakery products”. [bold added]

– May 2011?  Based on comments on their FB page, their customer base was clearly not aware of anything, and they are now suitably outraged.  2 years is plenty of time to reformulate, repackage, explain to customers, and flush out all inventory.  An FDA inquiry would seem to have been a strong hint to watch nutritional claims closely.

A matter of health – these products draw heavily from diabetics and celiac sufferers, for whom safe, tasty treats are often difficult to find.  BB’s products apparently tasted great, which is now not surprising since that’s largely what sugar and fat are for.  So whether intentional or not, BB enticed customers with better taste, while simultaneously putting them in danger because of misleading labeling.  This is not just a case of ‘I’m mad you didn’t tell me’, it’s a case of putting consumers at risk.

You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression – – Butterfly Bakery has now gotten its first national publicity, which is hugely negative, and they will forever be associated with this scandal.  They will immediately forfeit retail distribution and may have trouble regaining it. But perhaps most importantly, they have violated the trust of their most important constituency – their customers, which may be impossible to restore.

Collateral damage – – other unrelated Butterfly Bakeries have already had to start issuing disclaimers that this doesn’t apply to them.  But clearly potential customers will have pause before buying from them.

The upshot:  Hindsight is 20/20, but Butterfly Bakery could have positioned themselves most positively back in 2011 if they had acknowledged some inaccuracies in labeling, offered refunds, and pledged to a new level of scrutiny.  They would have been seen as being committed to their customers.  Now the opposite is true, and their options are limited.  At least they have not made the mistake of trying to fight hand-to-hand on Facebook (see Applebee’s case).