Fast-casual Mexican restaurant Chipotle recently announced it would begin serving food made from non-GMO ingredients in its restaurants in the United States, making it the first national restaurant to do so. GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) are found in 70 to 80 percent of the food Americans consume, according to the Grocery Manufacturing Association; they've earned the ire of some who are against the practice of genetically manipulating crops to boost herbicide and pesticide resistance, though the scientific community has not come to a unified conclusion on the long-term safety of eating GMOs.
Chipotle's announcement is the latest in a recent spate of big companies touting their use of natural ingredients to meet growing demand from customers. McDonald's announced it will be serving preservative-free chicken in its artisan line, and it plans to stop serving chickens pumped with human antibiotics in the next two years. Pepsi's diet products replace aspartame with sucralose, a less controversial artificial sweetener. Kraft macaroni and cheese products will no longer get their orange hue from artificial dyes as a response to the more than 365,000 people who signed a Change.org petition.
"[Companies] are trying to appeal to a certain demographic," says Barry Weinstein, president of food consulting firm Barry Weinstein & Associates. "Natural is being used as a marketing term and is open to interpretation—since there are no regulatory conditions on [natural], someone can use that term and say that means they don’t have x, y, z. The vast majority of my clients come to me with the desire to stay away from the over-processed products."
"Consumers overall are more interested in less processed, more 'natural' products," agrees Mary Chapman, senior director of production at Technomic, "but younger people are driving it. Millennials’ buying power is only growing, so companies are paying close attention to their demands and purchases."
This food trend is something food manufacturers and restaurateurs should be aware of. "There will likely be supply chain issues" for small-business owners, Chapman says. "If a large company like Chipotle is buying only non-GMO corn, for example, there won’t be much left for those without their buying power. Smaller businesses will have to rely on relationships with local suppliers—but then can promote that fact."
And safety concerns should trump trendiness. "It becomes a challenge because you have a product that’s being billed as healthy, but may be harmful to the public," if the new, "healthier" substitute degrades a product's shelf life, Weinstein explains. "When someone makes a meal, they're looking at using something in three to five days. I gotta think about time frames of six to 10 months."
"We’re always going to be looking for new varieties [and] new opportunities," Weinstein continues. "But we have to be sure to maintain safety first and know that some of these ingredients [will] have balances and trade-offs."
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