Food companies spend big money to achieve 'homemade' look as consumers drift from overly processed fare

| Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 8:39 p.m.

NEW YORK — Here's the latest goal for food makers: Perfect the art of imperfection.

When stretching out the dough for its premium “Artisan Pizzas,” Domino's workers are instructed not to worry about making rectangles too perfect: The pies are supposed to have a rustic look.

At McDonald's, egg whites for the breakfast sandwich Egg White Delight McMuffin have a loose shape rather than round discs like those used in the original Egg McMuffin.

Kraft Foods took more than two years to develop a process to make thick, uneven slabs of turkey in its Carving Board line look like leftovers from a homemade meal rather than cookie-cutter ovals typical of most lunchmeat.

“The goal is to get the same action as if you were cutting with a knife,” said Paul Morin, a Kraft engineer.

Food companies are responding to the adage that people eat with their eyes. Americans love their fast food and packaged snacks, but they're increasingly turning their noses up at foods that look overly processed. Home-cooked meals — or ones that look homemade — are seen as more wholesome and authentic.

The result is that companies are tossing out the identical shapes and drab colors that scream of factory conveyor belts. There's no way to measure exactly how much food makers are investing to make products look more natural or fresh. But they consider the pursuit necessary to fuel steady growth.

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 rose 13 percent to $225.6 billion.

In many cases, food products get their wholesome appearance because of different or stripped-down ingredients companies use to make them more natural, said Michael Cohen, a visiting assistant professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business. In other cases, companies make tweaks 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,” he said.

Appearances always were a part of food production. But some experts say visual cues food makers use to suggest products are wholesome confuse people about what's 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,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.”

A little dressing up can work. Bernell Dorrough, 31, a web marketing coordinator in the Mobile, Ala., area, recently opted for store brand lunchmeat at a Publix supermarket in part because the slices came loosely packed in folds rather than in the traditional tight stacks.

“I know it wasn't hand-sliced, but something about the aesthetic quality appealed to me,” he said.

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