Are processed, junk foods losing the consumer vote?

The well-known advice from Michael Pollan, “you can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day” just might be helping to turn the tide on the dominance of the junk food industry.  Though the power of Big Food in the United States has often seemed indestructible, sales are declining for many of the biggest players, including the Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.  Increasing consumer interest in food with simpler ingredients has led sectors like natural and organic to outpace more processed categories.

Just this week, the New York Times reported on the major sales decline for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals:

The drop-off has accelerated lately, especially among those finicky millennials who tend to graze on healthy options.

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In August, McDonald’s reported it’s weakest monthly sales results in more than a decade. In this Nasdaq article, the author makes a hard-hitting point about American’s desire to eat healthier food:

Generations ago, Americans accepted the world they were given without much question.  It is hardly surprising that they put McDonalds food in their mouths, trusting it not to hurt them – they did the same thing with cigarettes – but times do change. Today’s consumer goes out to eat with an active desire to not contribute to his or her own death.

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Coca-cola sales have also been dropping. Food Navigator reports:

Concerns about sugar and calories have caused consumers to re-evaluate the amount of soda in their diet.

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Sales of frozen meals have also seen a noticeable decline.  Even brands such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers have all reported losses, despite their healthy sounding names.  Bloomberg reports:

Mothers are more concerned about the healthiness of frozen meals than any food item other than soda and sweet snacks.

Making things worse is the “long and scary” list of ingredients in frozen meals, which include preservatives like potassium sorbate, calcium propionate, sodium tripolyphosphate and sorbic acid

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Does this mean that consumers desire to eat healthy is the only reason these companies are losing sales? Definitely not. There are a multitude of issues each company is facing, but the desire for less processed, healthful foods is certainly an important factor affecting consumer decisions.

While McDonald’s sales are rapidly dropping, profits for companies like Chipotle, which focus on healthier, fresher and higher quality ingredients, are skyrocketing. And Big Food companies have been rapidly swooping up brands in the natural and organic food categories, as sales for these items have been growing rapidly over the last ten years.  This week, General Mills officials announced their acquisition of Annie’s Inc., a company devoted to organic and natural products. And upon slumping sales for the Campbell Soup company, CEO Denise Morrison, was quoted as saying, “the company will focus future acquisitions in North America on targets in the health and wellness category.”  Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of high-salt foods, and Campbell’s products have long been a major culprit.

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While it is impossible to predict whether or not these trends will continue, the power we have as health-conscious consumers is becoming more evident.  Michael Pollan is right. In addition to voting for sound food policies for an improved food environment, you can also vote with your fork!  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it, with the opposite also being true.

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The Big G Stands for GMO’s: The Social Media Strategy that Lead to GMO-Free Cheerios

In 2012, General Mills developed a social media campaign encouraging consumers to visit their Facebook page and share “What Cheerios Means to You.”  They even designed a special app so users could turn any phrase into the cereal’s iconic font and yellow background, with the signature Cheerio dotting every “I.”

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Unfortunately for General Mills, the campaign generated exactly the opposite of the “feel-good” messages the company was hoping for.  In response to General Mills $1.1 million contribution to the anti-Proposition 37 campaign to label GMO’s in California, consumers covered the Facebook page with anti-GMO messages such as “GMO’s, No Thanks”, “Deception”, and even “Poison.”

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Of course, General Mills wasted no time in removing the app, but the damage had been done.  Thanks in part to the GMOInside, a coalition demanding a non-GMO food supply, the Facebook comments continued, even after the app was removed and the campaign ended.  But what happened next, turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.

Despite General Mills stance that GMO’s are perfectly safe, and their lobbying efforts against state level GMO labeling initiatives, the company apparently still took this consumer backlash to heart.  On January 2nd, General Mills announced that original Cheerios had been reformulated to be GMO-free.

The predominant ingredient in Cheerios was never in question, as there are no genetically modified oats, however, the sugar and cornstarch used in the product were assumed to be made from genetically modified crops.  The company now claims that they were able to source both ingredients without the use of GMO’s and will be labeling the product as such very soon.  Though we can’t be certain that the Facebook ambush is the only reason for the change, General Mills openly admitted that their decision stemmed from consumer demand.

Pressuring change from food companies via social media is a relatively new tactic, but it seems to be working quite well.  An article released in the New York Times last month described the many ways consumers are using social media to convince companies to reconsider ingredients, change the processing of their products, and alter their food labels.  Never before have consumers had such easy access to the top dogs of major food corporations, and several companies are actually starting to take note of the criticism.

Consumers still have a lot of questions for General Mills after their announcement.  If the company really cares, why aren’t the other Cheerios varieties being reformulated?  Better yet, why not make all General Mills cereals GMO-free? Will a third-party be confirming that the product is completely non-GMO before the labels start to appear?  If General Mills believes that consumers want GMO-free products, and are willing to make the necessary steps to create them, why are they fighting so hard to keep these products from being labeled?

If this first step, which even General Mills admitted didn’t take much effort, helps the company acquire new customers and increase profits, there is no question that the company will address these questions to meet consumer demand.  Social media sure is proving itself as an important tactic in the game of food reform.