Food companies devising products with homemade look

Kraft Foods? Carving Board lunchmeats look less processed, Kraft Foods’ Carving Board lunchmeats look less processed, with uneven turkey servings that appear sliced by hand. Photo Credit: iStock

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Here's the latest goal for food makers: Perfect the art of imperfection.

When stretching the dough for its premium "Artisan Pizzas," Domino's workers are instructed not to worry about making the rectangles too perfect: The pies are supposed to have a rustic look.

At McDonald's, the egg whites for the new breakfast sandwich called the Egg White Delight McMuffin have a loose shape rather than the round discs used in the original Egg McMuffin.

And Kraft Foods took more than two years to develop a process to make the thick, uneven slabs of turkey in its Carving Board line look like leftovers from a homemade meal rather than the cookie-cutter ovals typical of most lunchmeat.

"The goal is to get the same action as if you were cutting with a knife," said Paul Morin, a Kraft engineer.

Food companies are responding to the adage that people eat with their eyes. Americans still love their fast food and packaged snacks, but they're increasingly turning their noses up at foods that look overly processed. Home-cooked meals -- or ones that at least look like they were homemade -- are seen as more wholesome and authentic.

The result is that companies are tossing out the identical shapes and drab colors that scream of factory conveyor belts. There's no way to measure exactly how much they're investing to make their products look more natural or fresh, but the process is seen as necessary to fuel steady growth.

Over the past five years, the overall packaged food industry in North America grew 14 percent to $392.5 billion, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. The fast-food industry rose 13 percent to $225.6 billion.

In many cases, food products get their wholesome appearance because of different ingredients companies are using to make them more natural, said Michael Cohen, visiting assistant professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business. But in other cases, companies are making tweaks just to achieve a desired look.

"Food manufacturers are adapting by the way they mold the product or the end color or texture they want the product to be," he said.

Appearances have always been part of food production. But some experts say the visual cues food makers are using to suggest their products are wholesome fuel confusion about what's natural and what isn't.

At Kraft, executives went on a quest for a turkey slice that looks home-cooked. A team at its Madison, Wis., research facility studied the way people carve meat in their kitchen, using the variety of knives they typically have at their disposal. Instead of the traditional slicers found in delis, the goal was to build a machine that would hack at the meat as a person might, creating slabs with more ragged edges.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds since the meat still needs to fit neatly into a package and add up to a certain weight. Morin wouldn't provide details of the process for competitive reasons, but he said no two packages are exactly alike. "We have a way of making sure that the blade cuts the piece of meat differently with each cut."

In a similar push in response to customer feedback, Hillshire Brands worked to make its turkey slices look "grainier," said Reggie Moore, vice president of marketing. Hillshire also revamped the look of the slices by darkening the edges with caramel coloring to give the impression it was just sliced from a Thanksgiving roast.

Ultimately, Moore said the change didn't really impact the taste.

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