Burger King, are you OK?
On Wednesday, the fast-food giant launched a global ad campaign showing the iconic Whopper sandwich covered in furry blue-gray mold. Its message: The brand has achieved a milestone by removing artificial preservatives from the Whopper sandwich in over 400 restaurants in the U.S. and will reach all U.S. restaurants by the end of the year. With it, the chain is announcing that more than 90% of food ingredients at Burger King are now free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and that 100% of ingredients are free of MSG and high-fructose corn syrup.
With the campaign, Burger King has debuted a 45-second video of a pristine Whopper devolving over 34 days into something that is so not ready for its close-up. Food rot as sales pitch is novel, but it is a harbinger of where the food world is going and a nod to all of the fast-food and quick-serve chains that have made similar choices in recent years.
In September 2018, McDonald’s announced that in the United States, all classic burgers would have no artificial preservatives, no artificial flavors and no added colors from artificial sources (the pickles remain a sticky wicket; their preservatives persist), this on top of removing preservatives from chicken nuggets in 2016 and from soft serve in 2017. Panera Bread announced in 2015 that it would remove artificial flavors, colors, preservatives and sweeteners from all of its 2,000 restaurants, a goal it achieved in 2017 just after Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it had become the only national brand with no added colors, flavors or preservatives in any ingredients. (The only hedge: Lemon and lime can be used to preserve, but Chipotle was using citrus only as flavor.)
In each case, these changes required rethinking of supply chains and reformulating of recipes. (Panera’s popular broccoli cheddar soup recipe had to be revised 60 times before it achieved the desirable flavor and texture.)
Other brands, such as Wendy’s, have made less quantifiable commitments such as removing artificial ingredients “whenever possible.” But nearly every national restaurant brand has scrambled in recent years to clean up ingredient statements, often switching from artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners to “natural” alternatives.
The trigger for all these changes is consumer preference. In recent years, Americans have frequently been drawn to what a product lacks more than what it contains. This has led to absurdities such as gluten-free water, cholesterol-free gummy bears and non-GMO orange juice (there are no genetically modified oranges commercially available), as well as a great deal of consternation about what precisely “natural” means.
The Food and Drug Administration defines it as a food product that contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and has been “minimally processed.” The space between minimally processed, processed and ultra-processed remains hazy, however, as do these foods’ effect on human health.
When asked precisely which preservatives Burger King was doing away with, a spokeswoman for the company said that sodium benzoate would be removed from the pickles and replaced with lactic acid; ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) would be removed from the mayonnaise; and calcium propionate would be removed from the buns and replaced with cultured wheat flour.
Nutrition watchdogs are optimistic but still scrutinizing. Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says these changes are more about public relations then public health.
“They are replacing propionate with bacteria that produce propionic acid,” she said. “Basically just a natural source of the same preservative, but it sounds better. Kind of like using celery powder instead of sodium nitrate to cure meat.”
Lefferts says the other preservatives they are removing are safe and that consumers are leery of different chemical additives, so companies are responding to that by limiting additives.
“Good old-fashioned added sugar and salt are causing more problems than those that have more unfamiliar names,” she says. “Artificial sugars, food dyes — we think companies should disclose which specific ingredients they do not permit. Let’s focus on public health and transparency.”