You may not know it but your favorite frozen pizza is getting healthier

The world’s biggest food companies are tinkering with dinner.
The world’s biggest food companies are tinkering with dinner.
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
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The world’s largest food companies are reworking the recipes of some of their most famous brands, an attempt to make them healthier for consumers who demand it.

But you may not notice, because they don’t know how to break it to you.

The changes can be found in the small-text ingredient lists on frozen pizzas, Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s, Hot Pockets and Uncle Ben’s Rice. Artificial colors and flavors have been replaced with natural ones, sodium and trans-fats have been reduced and sugars dialed back.

It’s part of a campaign to convince the public that processed food can be healthy. Mars is investing $20 million to develop healthier versions of its brands without changing the taste. Nestlé invested at least $50 million and built a new research facility in Solon, Ohio. General Mills has been refurbishing its cereals to eliminate artificial colors and flavors.

The clearest, easiest way to tell shoppers about the benefits of a product is to use the actual packaging, but food manufacturers such as Mars and Nestlé are reticent. Mars on April 14 said it’s planning a 20% reduction in sodium across its brands by 2021. But Mars execs don’t want to declare that, say, their Dolmio tomato sauce has less sodium because consumers may believe it won’t taste as good. So food marketers are using more subtle ways to convince consumers they’re eating a healthier product—or at least that they can trust the brands they’re buying—and still appeal to their desire for healthier foods.

Nestlé pledged to cut sodium from its pizzas by 10% and phase out trans-fats and artificial flavors. But on the pizza boxes only suggested serving sizes (a couple slices, not the whole pie) and food sourcing information is listed. At Mars, which is now expanding a pilot program that originally ran in Australia, the backs of its products include recipes it deems healthy. Some of those recipes even suggest people forego red meat options for leaner chicken or vegetables.

To be sure, Mars still wants to sell its creamy sauces, high-sodium pestos and flavored rices. But it plans to cover its tracks by marketing them as “occasional” rather than “everyday” foods, the company said.

Fiona Dawson, the CEO of the Mars food division, said research shows that 90% of people follow those back-of-box recipes to the letter, giving her company an influential communications tool. The tool only works if people trust that large food companies won’t sell them crappy foods.

“One thing that makes me very sad about the industry is the view that processed food is bad food,” Dawson said. “I think we really need to clean up our act.”

Nestlé is already seeing a turnaround in its US frozen foods section, as reported April 14 during an earnings call with investors, and it’s planning to take what it learned about reformulation and apply the same idea to its struggling Yinlu brand in China.

Dawson acknowledges that consumers are trending toward more organic and health and wellness products—something that has left many multi-national food companies flat-footed. But if Mars can properly spin the healthfulness of its foods, Dawson said she believes consumers will come back into their kitchens to make their own food…with Mars’ reformulated sauces and rices, of course.