Inside Frito-Lay's All-Natural, Kinda Healthy Junk-Food Adventure

Last Updated Feb 12, 2011 12:23 AM EST

If you take the junk out of junk food, is it still junky and unhealthy? That's the puzzling philosophical question at the heart of Frito-Lay's leading-edge efforts, announced in December, to remove all artificial ingredients from its products. The company is ditching MSG and other cheap ways to boost flavor, in favor of tomato powder made from real tomatoes and jalapeno pepper extract.

For a company that makes Cheetos and Doritos, going all-natural is nothing if not ambitious. This year, 50% of the company's snacks will be free of artificial ingredients -- starting with Lays, Tostitos and SunChips -- and the rest will follow by 2015.

A world of "healthy" junk food
With the food industry facing relentless scrutiny over its role in creating a nation of people with diet-related diseases, many manufacturers have been tinkering with their products to make them look healthier, mostly by reducing sodium, calories and saturated fat. But among US-based manufacturers, Frito-Lay, which is owned by PepsiCo (PEP), is unique in addressing the quality of its ingredients.

The company's end game here is a new type of processed food operation, one that sells products that are either kinda healthy or at least not horrible for you. On Fox Business Network's American Icon, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi argued for a re-imagining of processed food.

Doritos are not bad for you....They're nothing more than corn mashed up, fried up in oil, and flavored in the most delectable way.
Once those "delectable" flavors don't include disodium inosinate, sodium acetate and Red 40, these statements will likely elicit fewer snickers. That job falls to Tim Fink, Frito Lay's director of seasonings and culinary innovation. I spoke to him about his efforts, which are filled with challenges, shortcomings and extra costs.

Since the FDA has never bothered to define what "natural" means, Fink says Frito came up with its own, fairly expansive, definition -- no MSG, no artificial flavors or colors, no artificial preservatives and no "unfamiliar ingredients":

Even if some of the ingredients were natural but they didn't sound familiar we tried to remove those. The ultimate goal was if it's not in your kitchen cupboard, can we get it off the label? We didn't get to 100% but we got pretty close.
Fink worked with his suppliers to get the red coloring for Flaming Hot Lays from beets and vinegar flavor for Salt & Vinegar Lays from actual vinegar, not sodium diacetate. As a result, seasoning costs went up by "a significant amount," according to Fink, though he declined to offer specifics.

What Frito's all-natural plan leaves out
Frito's embrace of nature of only goes so far. Two things not on the table are genetically engineered ingredients and the hexane-extraction of soybean oil. Unless a Frito-Lay product uses organic corn or organic soybean oil, it's almost certain that those Tostitos are made with GE corn. And that soybean oil is made by bathing soybeans in a bath of hexane, a neurotoxic product of gasoline refining. Hexane is widely used and manufacturers say that it gets burned off with no traces of it remaining in the food you eat.

Fink says his hardest work lies ahead -- taking out the long list of chemical ingredients in Cheetos and many of the explosively-flavored versions of Doritos. Although Frito is already selling a natural version of Cheetos, these aren't the same product. Fink's aim is to get the regular Cheetos kids love to taste almost exactly the same without the chemicals.

For critics of the food industry, natural Cheetos are an oxymoron. But for Fink and Nooyi, they're the Holy Grail.

Image from Frito-Lay
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