Citing consumer (especially parental) demand, General Mills announced today that it would remove all artificial flavors and colors from its cereal over the next two to three years. But what will kids think?
Cereals that still contain artificial flavors and colors include Reese’s Puffs, Lucky Charms and Trix.
“The work has been underway for several months — and we’ve actually been researching flavors and colors for several years,” according to the company’s statement.
Each cereal requires different changes. Cereals that contain marshmallows, like Lucky Charms and Monster cereals, are the biggest challenge and will take longer to complete the changes.
Lucky Charms, for example, has morphed over the years from its original four pastel marshmallow charms (pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars and green clovers) in 1964 to an explosion of bright blue diamonds, purple horseshoes, red balloons, two-tone green leprechaun hats and yellow and orange pots of gold. (The brightness of the colors changed in 2004.) General Mills estimates it will take until 2017 to remove the fake colors from the festive marshmallows.
“We’re simply listening to consumers and these ingredients are not what people are looking for in their cereal today,” said Jim Murphy, president of GM’s cereal division.
But Occidental College’s assistant professor of sociology John Lang, who specializes in food and consumer issues, has a different take — a more cynical one. According to Lang, it is just a ruse to — guess what? — sell more cereal.
“Cereal sales have been in a steep decline for a few years,” he told The Times. “Manufacturers need to at least slow their decline; they hope to even reverse the trend. Removing some of the artificial colors and dyes from kids’ cereals is an attempt from the manufacturers to capitalize on consumer desires for 'clean' labels. As a result some colors will likely disappear and others will become muted.
“This will quickly be spun to say it is an attempt to make their products healthier, but that is a very narrow claim,” he added. “Kids cereals are, and will likely remain, much higher in sugar and sodium, and lower in fiber than cereals marketed towards adults.”
General Mills says the goal is to achieve little to no noticeable changes to the flavors and colors for most of the cereals they’re reformulating. Some, like Trix, however, “will look a bit different.”
In other words, expect a little more toned-down Trixian palette as the company moves from chemically based colors to naturally sourced coloring materials. And the cereal will have only four colors instead of six — the company failed to find acceptably “vibrant” natural sources for green and blue. Because no one wants to eat pea-green cereal.
The new Trix will be colored with fruit and vegetable juices and spice extracts such as turmeric for yellow and annatto for orange. Reese’s Puffs’ flavor will be achieved using natural vanilla. The company’s statement did not say whether these changes would affect the cereals’ prices.
“The packaging will still be brightly colored eye candy with cartoon characters designed to appeal to children. So the kids likely won't even know until they get home,” Lang pointed out. “My guess is that kids will wonder, for a minute, why the cereal in the bowl doesn't really match the colorful version presented on their boxes. But by then they're already eating their cereal that will still taste the same and still provide very little nutrition.”
A host of food companies including Subway, Pizza Hut, Panera, Hershey and Nestle have said in recent months that they're removing artificial ingredients from some or all of their products. In April, Kraft announced plans to remove the synthetic colors and preservatives from its iconic blue-boxed bright orange macaroni and cheese.
While these changes will doubtless please parents, which may in turn boost cereal sales, we wonder: Is cereal without brilliant fake colors – chemicals the FDA has deemed safe for human consumption — really for kids? Or is it tragically delicious?