There are few things parents are more passionate about than the food and drink that their kids consume.
So it's no accident that Honest Tea, the organic tea maker recently swallowed-up by Coca-Cola, is revamping its wildly successful Honest Kids beverage line into one that this fall will be sweetened with fruit juice instead of cane sugar. A white blaze on the front of the pouch will proclaim: Sweetened only with fruit juice.
"They're nutritionally the same," concedes Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea. "But parents don't want to see added sugar. They can get very emotional about this."
What Americans eat and drink has become such an emotional roller coaster for so many of us that it's utterly changing the way the nation's biggest restaurant chains, foodmakers and grocery chains do business. Food used to feed our bodies. Now it also needs to feed our brains. Our egos. Our nostalgic memories. And maybe even our social-media appetites.
"While we have always had an emotional relationship with food, what's different is we talk about it more, and the discussion is much louder," says Harry Balzer, food guru at researcher NPD Group. "Food is fashion. You wear your diet like you wear your clothes."
Talking about food has become so fashionable that we may be doing more of it than ever. Social-media chatter about food — which is where we do much of it — is up more than 13% over the past year, says Nielsen Media Incite, which tracks buzz across social networks, blogs, forums and consumer review sites. That's millions of additional social morsels just on food. The hunger for food news seems insatiable. Food Network, which had 50,000 viewers per night in the mid-'90s, now averages more than 1.1 million.
Foodmakers are listening in. They know that one of the strongest emotions that many American consumers feel toward the food they eat is fear. One week the fear is over pink slime. Then, it's about chemicals in milk. Or mad cow disease. Or too many calories stuffed into a large, sugary drink. Or even some worker's fingertip getting chopped into an Arby's roast beef sandwich.
"Every week, something raises distrust for our industrialized food system," says Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farms. "There's a real-time awareness that our food may be making us sick."
The emotional hits or misses that people feel toward the food they eat can determine everything from what Whole Foods stocks to the thickness of Stonyfield's next yogurt to the look, taste and smell of a new appetizer that Applebee's will add to its menu this fall.
Our emotional attachment to food is leading foodmakers to:
•Respond to consumer concerns. Consumer research revealed to Honest Tea executives something they didn't expect: The most important word in the company's name isn't "tea." It's "honest," Goldman says. That's honest as in: We can trust what this brand stands for.
In other words, consumers just want to know what's actually in a product, and they want to know that it's beneficial to eat or drink. So, the Honest brand is looking into a better-for-you carbonated soft-drink line by next year. And it's even looking into Honest-branded foods, he says.