When stretching out the dough for premium “Artisan Pizzas,” Domino’s workers don’t create perfect rectangles: The pies are supposed to have a more rustic look. At McDonald’s, the egg whites for the new Egg White Delight McMuffin take on a loose shape instead of the perfect discs used in the original Egg McMuffin. And Kraft Foods took more than two years to design the thick, uneven slabs of turkey in its Carving Board line—made to look like leftovers from a homemade meal rather than the typical cookie-cutter lunchmeat ovals.
“People eat with their eyes first,” an adage declares, and food companies are catering to that idea.
But Americans still love their fast and packaged food. Over the past five years, the overall packaged food industry in North America grew 14 percent to $392.5 billion, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. The fast-food industry meanwhile rose 13 percent to $225.6 billion.
Michael Cohen, a visiting assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, says sometimes companies strip down ingredients to make their food more natural. But in other cases companies tweak products just to achieve a desired look: “Food manufacturers are adapting by the way they mold the product or the end color or texture they want the product to be.”
At Kraft Foods Group Inc., executives searched deeper for a turkey slice that looked home-cooked. A team at its Madison, Wis., research facility studied the way people carve meat in their kitchen, using the variety of knives they typically have at their disposal instead of traditional slicers found in delis. Kraft engineer Paul Morin said “the goal is to get the same action as if you were cutting with a knife.”
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds since the meat still needs to fit neatly into a package and add up to a certain weight. Morin declined to provide details of the process for competitive reasons but said that no two packages are exactly alike.
While some people think the trend is amusing, others see something more sinister at work. Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back said natural-looking products can cause confusion about what is natural and what isn’t: “They can’t change the fact that they’re making processed products so they have to use these other tricks to pretend.”
Meanwhile, at Hillshire Brands Co., a lunch meat, hot dog, and sausage company, the quest for a more natural-looking turkey slice continues. Reggie Moore, vice president of marketing, said the company used caramel coloring to darken the edges and make it look more like a Thanksgiving slice, but the change in appearance didn’t really affect the taste.