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At a glance
Recent examples of changes made to satisfy online demands:
Starbucks last year removed cochineal extract, a red dye made from crushed bugs, from its food and drinks because of an online petition. It said the decision was the result of customer feedback through “a variety of means.”
PepsiCo this year removed brominated vegetable oil from Gatorade. An online petition had noted the ingredient’s link to flame retardants. PepsiCo said the decision was the result of customer feedback.
Kraft Foods says it will reformulate select varieties of its macaroni and cheese next year to use natural colors. A petition by a popular food blogger had asked the company to remove the artificial dyes. Kraft said the reformulation is a part of an ongoing push to improve the overall nutrition of its products.
Chick-fil-A has been removing artificial dyes and high-fructose corn syrup from dressings and sauces. The company says people are becoming more aware of ingredients and that it expects to continue making changes.

Consumers driving unwanted ingredients off food labels

– Take another look at that food label. An ingredient or two may have vanished.

As Americans pay closer attention to what they eat, food and beverage companies are learning that unfamiliar ingredients can invite criticism from online petitions and bloggers.

The risk of damaging publicity has proven serious enough that some manufacturers have reformulated top-selling products to remove mysterious, unpronounceable components that could draw suspicion.

Ali Dibadj, a Bernstein Research analyst who covers the packaged food industry, said the changes reflect a shift from “democratization to activism” by consumers.

“It used to be that people would just decide not to buy the product. Now they’re actually agitating for change,” Dibadj said. “There’s a bullhorn – which is the Internet – so you can get a lot of people involved very quickly.”

Companies stand by the safety of their old recipes. Although they don’t typically provide details on production decisions, their reasons for using certain ingredients can include cost and manufacturing efficiencies.

Still, food and beverage makers can be sensitive about broadcasting any changes. Chick-fil-A, for instance, which has been changing the makeup of its dressings and sauces, is also testing a “clean ingredient bun” but has not alerted customers.

“The reason companies don’t publicize it is that they don’t want to bring attention to these ingredients. They want to slowly start to remove them until they’re all gone,” said Vani Hari, who runs the site FoodBabe.com and has pressured companies to remove artificial dyes and other ingredients.

The trend underscores the growing sway consumers have through sites such as Change.org, which lets people post petitions.

In the past, a customer complaint about an ingredient may have been addressed with a boilerplate letter from corporate headquarters. But now people can go online to share their concerns with thousands of like-minded people.

There are no numbers tracking how many companies are reformulating products in response to consumer demand. But even if recipe changes aren’t prompted by petitions or blogs, executives understand that ingredients that fall out of favor can become a liability.

High-fructose corn syrup, for example, has gained a negative image in recent years and has been blamed for fueling bad eating habits.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, says the sweetener is no more harmful than ordinary sugar in large amounts. But Kroger Co. decided to remove it from store-brand cereals following surveys with consumers in 2011.

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