Food: McCain bets big on menu revamp

Frozen-food giant rewrites recipes for 70 items to focus on healthy, real ingredients.

In one classic 1980s commercial for McCain Superfries, a young boy named Jay munches intently on a plate of fries, even as his friends call him outside to play. “For the strong, silent type,” a voice says. Well, Jay grew up. And he’s demanding to know what’s in the processed food he’s been eating.

Over the past few years, McCain Foods has been hearing from a lot of consumers asking the same tough question. “The household dilemma used to be, ‘What’s for dinner?'” says Fred Schaeffer, CEO of McCain Foods (Canada). “Now we’re hearing them ask, ‘What’s in our dinner?'” This month, the Florenceville, N.B., frozen-food giant is set to tackle the question head on. After decades of making its french fries, pizzas and snacks with the same ingredients, including strange-sounding additives and preservatives, McCain’s Canadian division has overhauled its cookbook.

Gone are most of the “ites” and “ates,” the bewildering collection of chemical compounds widely used in the modern food industry to maintain taste, colour and shelf-life. In their place are more natural, recognizable ingredients. Coupled with a major marketing campaign around the theme “It’s all Good,” McCain is banking its new recipes will be an added edge at the checkout. “One consumer told us shopping shouldn’t be a three-hour chore that requires a magnifying glass and a degree in chemistry,” says Schaeffer. “Our commitment to consumers was to rewrite our recipes to include foods from ingredients you’d find in your own kitchen. It’s really about making food from, well, food.”

The question of what exactly constitutes food has gotten downright messy lately. It’s not just an issue for McCain, of course. The whole industry is under the gun over expanding waistlines and safety concerns. One new study out of the U.S. has found obesity is now a greater health threat than tobacco. Meanwhile, documentaries like Supersize Me, which targeted McDonald’s, and Food Inc., which lambasted food corporations in general, have touched a raw nerve with consumers. That, in turn, has got politicians and regulators itching to crack down on Big Food.

“You’re hearing health experts tell people to stick to the perimeter of the grocery stores because anything in the middle is bad for you,” says Ken Wong, a Queen’s University marketing professor. (Wong is especially familiar with the McCain story – seven years ago his family sold its Chinese frozen-food empire, Wong Wing Foods, to the company.) “McCain has always had to walk on eggshells when it came to health issues, because of the dominance of certain products they carry. By doing this, they’re getting on top of the curve.”

Still, when you’re a multinational food company with $6 billion in annual sales, it’s not easy, or cheap, to completely overhaul your core products. There’s a lot at stake. Busy consumers may tell McCain they want to eat healthier, but if they don’t like the taste of the new pizzas or fries, they’re just as likely to switch to another brand still using the same old ingredients.

That was all top of mind when McCain began the two-year reformulation process. The company’s food scientists started by listing the contents of about 70 of its products on white boards, then selected the ingredients not available to cooks at home. It then spent months testing more natural ingredients and processes to find suitable replacements.The end result was ingredient lists that are shorter and easier to read. For instance, the chemically preserved pepperoni in an old Pizza Pocket – a hodgepodge of pork, beef and mechanically separated chicken mixed with compounds like sodium nitrite and erythrobate – has been replaced with naturally cured pork. Modified corn starch is now just corn starch. McCain also says it was able to cut 20% of the salt from many products.

Will it be enough to not only satisfy consumers but also head off any government clampdown? The first question will come down to customers’ taste buds. But before regulators take any action, it’s worth noting that when a big food company like McCain revamps its menu for the better, it can have far-reaching effects. Three years ago, when McCain cut all the trans fats out of its foods, it removed a stunning eight million pounds of the substance from Canadians’ diets every year.