General Mills scientists still haven’t figured out how to phase out artificial flavours and colours in Lucky Charms without ruining the iconic cereal.
“This is something that we are in the midst of trying to solve,” cereal research and development manager Kate Gallager said.
The company announced in 2015 that it would remove those ingredients from all of its cereals over several years.
Gallager’s team already pulled it off with Trix, at least in part. In that case, they used mixtures of radish, carrot, blueberry, tumeric, and annatto seed to create red, yellow, orange, and purple corn puffs. Part of the challenge is that each of those natural colours brings in some flavour too. The team abandoned the green and blue puffs after deciding they couldn’t reach those hues without ruining the taste.
Lucky Charms, a cereal that includes with colourful marshmallows, has proven more difficult. First, it’s easier to distort the flavour of a marshmallow than a corn puff.
“What’s harder on a marshmallow piece is that all of the flavour of that colour can come through,” Gallager said.
Second, Lucky Charms already have a subtler flavour than bold, fruity Trix. It’s so subtle, consumers struggle to define it.
“People describe that flavour as magically delicious, which sounds a little bit funny because those are the same words we use,” Gallager said, referring to a Lucky Charms slogan. “We try to really break it down … does that mean vanilla? Does that mean sweet?”
Lucky Charms also supposedly trigger powerful feelings of nostalgia.
“[I]t’s not just that flavour, it is also that emotion that it takes people back to when they were eating this when they were younger or some of those different moments in their life,” Gallager said.
All this stuff about mystery and nostalgia? Other scientists have noted similar things about marshmallows before. Steve Witherly, PhD writes in “Why Humans Love Junk Food” that the vanilla aroma of marshmallows is one of the few flavours that the brain doesn’t get bored of. Moreover, it “may be imprinted soon after birth” since vanilla is the main flavour of breast milk and infant formula. Magically delicious indeed.
It could be a long slog. General Mills told Quartz in April that it hoped to bring the new Lucky Charms to market by the end of 2017.
General Mills began overhauling its cereal line in 2005, when it changed its cereals to include more whole grain. By 2011, it had reduced sugar to below 10 grams per serving across its line.
“What we were hearing was, ‘gosh, I just don’t know about some of the ingredients that were in there, I’m not sure if it’s a good choice for me and my kids anymore,'” says Gallager.
Reducing sugar and powerful synthetic colours and flavours, of course, risks alienating consumers. But food scientists have tricks: for instance, moving sugar to the surface of cereal while reducing overall content so it still tastes as sweet, as well as adding vanilla and other flavour enhancers.
General Mills claims, at least, that it’s getting a good response.
“I’m happy to report sales are great,” Erika B. Smith, technology director for General Mills, said at a conference in July. “They have exceeded our expectations. We are thrilled about that. We’ve got some excellent feedback from consumers.”
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