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Consumers loved ‘all-natural’ — until Trix cereal lost its neon-bright glow

A bowl of Trix cereal made with artificial colors and flavors, left, and a bowl of a reformulated version, made with natural flavors and colorings, right. (General Mills/AP)

The latest development in the Trix cereal saga conclusively proves at least one thing: Consumers remain deeply divided on the definition, and the importance, of eating healthfully.

Cereal-maker General Mills announced this week that it would re-introduce a discontinued version of the 63-year-old cereal, complete with the neon-bright, artificial colors that it removed in a company-wide makeover less than two years ago.

The real reason General Mills will cut fake flavors from cereals like Trix and Lucky Charms

The change, which replaced chemical dyes with vegetable and fruit juice and turmeric extract, didn’t necessarily hurt Trix sales. In fact, the company’s technology director, Erika Smith, told an industry conference in July 2016 that the new Trix had “exceeded expectations.”

Instead, the company — which has been besieged by complaints by some customers — found that current trends toward more “natural” products are far from universal.

“We made this decision because our fans were split,” said Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman. “Some really liked it, and some really wanted the old Trix back.”

That finding contradicts the now-dominant narrative about what modern consumers want from their food. According to the market research firm Nielsen, 61 percent of global consumers, and 50 percent of North Americans, are avoiding artificial colors, most of them because of health concerns.

In response, more than a dozen major packaged-food companies have, over the past three years, announced plans to root out artificial colors, flavors and preservatives in everything from banana peppers to Baby Ruths.

But in the process, many are discovering that the market for their products is actually quite fragmented, and that different groups of consumers are looking for different — even opposite — qualities in the exact same foods, said David Portalatin, a food-industry analyst at the research firm NPD.

“The days of the one-size-fits-all blockbuster brand are probably over,” Portalatin said.

As Portalatin explains it, the consumer definition of healthful has undergone a radical shift over the past decade. Where the term was once widely understood to refer to measurable qualities, such as calorie or nutrient content, consumers increasingly judge the healthfulness of their foods according to a lengthy, flexible and highly personalized list of attributes — from the lack of artificial additives to the way it was grown to the presence of GMOs, MSG or gluten.

Many of these attributes have not been shown to have any effect on a food’s nutrition. (Trix is just as sugary without artificial colors, for instance, as it is with them.)

Many of consumers’ food preferences aren’t set in stone, either, Portalatin said: Someone who avoids artificial colors in their regular diet, for instance, might expect it in their nostalgic Trix breakfast.

This has posed a real problem for packaged and processed food companies, such as General Mills, which have seen their sales slide in recent years. While the industry has sought to adapt to changing consumer health preferences, there’s some confusion as to which preferences they should adapt to — particularly when they run up against other things consumers care about, such as taste and price.

Kraft Heinz faced a backlash in 2016 when it introduced an organic version of its Capri Sun beverage. While the drink was meant to appeal to customers who value organics, it also came with more sugar and calories.

Consumers also revolted in 2014, when Coca-Cola replaced the crystalline fructose in Vitaminwater with stevia, a plant-based sweetener. Despite stevia’s “natural” and no-calorie credentials, many complained that it lacked the sweetness of sugar.

For Trix, the experience was much the same, said Siemienas, the General Mills spokesman. The company released its reformulated version of the cereal in January 2016, after testing 69 natural replacements for the bright yellow, orange, purple, red, blue and green dyes found in the original product. While the flavor and nutritional content of the new Trix was much the same, that iconic red was duller, and because the company’s scientists couldn’t find a good replacement for blue and green, it had to get rid of them.

On social media, the company faced an immediate onslaught of criticism. That prompted General Mills to rethink the reformulation.

“Clearly consumers have different food preferences,” said Siemienas. "We believe in giving consumers choices."

Portalatin, the industry analyst, believes that's the right attitude for major food companies. He believes that brands may need to begin offering several versions of their product to accommodate various consumer niches.

To start, General Mills will soon begin shelving its newer, naturally colored cereal alongside the older, brighter “Trix Classic."

“Today’s consumers are accustomed to a high degree of personalization,” Portalatin said. “For companies, it’s a real conundrum.”

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