Food Companies Not Bragging About Making Products Healthier Out Of Fear You’ll Reject Change

Change can be terrifying. Just ask my brother, who ran screaming at a young age when my formerly straight-haired mom came home with a perm. That kind of reaction is exactly why the companies behind Boston Market, Hamburger Helper and even McDonald’s don’t always go bragging to customers when they change products to make them healthier — they’re worried about rejection, just like the rest of us.

Even while consumers are putting the heat on companies to churn out healthier products, those businesses are worried that if they announce they’re cutting calories, reducing salt or skimping on fat, customers will get mad at the change, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Thus, the idea of “stealth health,” as some in the industry call it.

“When you tell people something’s healthy, they think it doesn’t taste good,” Sara Bittorf, chief brand officer of Boston Market Corp. told WSJ.

That company didn’t blare its healthy changes last year, cutting down on sodium in certain menu items but staying mum about it until after the food seemed accepted by consumers.

Executives at the rotisserie-chicken restaurant chain didn’t advertise their efforts in the fourth quarter of last year to cut sodium in mashed potatoes, stuffing and other menu items at its 460 outlets until February—after the items appeared to have been accepted by consumers.

They’re not the only ones — Kraft kept quiet about taking trans fats out of Oreos in 2006 for fear of customer backlash. And General Mills’ customers didn’t want lower sodium in Hamburger Helper so the company didn’t tell consumers about sodium cuts it made by substituting ingredients in like garlic, onion, tomato and spices.

Then there’s McDonald’s. It took the company years to finally settle on its current blend of frying oil, because it made the mistake of preemptively advertising the change, prompting customers to complain that the fries tasted different… before any actual change was made.

Of course, it depends on the product — if you’re already marketing something as a health item with benefits like low-sodium, those customers will expect things like… lower sodium. But you mess with our indulgent items and you’re going to have a problem.

“Consumers say they want healthier products, but they don’t want to compromise on taste,” General Mills’ company’s chief health and wellness officer Maha Tahiri noted of things like the Hamburger Helper sodium situation. “It takes multiple months, if not years, to get the right equation between taste and health.”

And it’s not easy to simply tell a consumer you want them to be healthy, say the folks at Boston Market. They found that out when trying to tackle the sodium situation, and experimented with removing salt shakers from dining tables in 2012 and moving them to the beverage station.

“We had people say, ‘Don’t tell me not to salt my food,’ ” Boston Market’s Bittorf explained.

Despite that, the chain kept salt shakers off the tables and just waited until complaints died down, which they have for the most part, she added.

Some customers say they’d like to know when things change, including one who said he would’ve like to have known he was eating less sodium, because he’s on medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

“I probably wouldn’t have changed what I eat,” he said. “I’d just feel better about eating it.”

From Oreos to Hamburger Helper: What’s Behind the Recipe Change [Wall Street Journal]