Nowadays, many major food companies are ditching artificial ingredients in an effort to appear more wholesome. Panera Bread, Nestle, and Dunkin' Donuts, among others, all have moved to rid their products of additives and preservatives.
This isn't as easy as it sounds. Experts say it can be difficult to maintain consistency and taste in mass-produced foods without adding these chemicals. There's also the question of cost. Many companies prefer our industrial food system — with all the low-quality ingredients and unsavory practices that come with it — precisely because it allows them to produce cheaper food at scale.
So how hard would it be for a company to simply rely on "real" food? To find out, I called up Siggi Hilmarsson, the New York–based Icelandic native behind Siggi’s yogurt. Unlike many other yogurt companies, Siggi's has never used artificial preservatives, thickeners, sweeteners, flavors, or colors in its yogurt. And every serving has about 25 to 50 percent less sugar than mainstream brands. As Hilmarsson says, "I’m really just putting together milk, fruit, a little cane sugar, and cultures."
This yogurt does seem wholesome, which is why it's developed a cult following. Yet producing food without using artificial ingredients can also be extremely challenging, which may explain why you don't see more companies do it. Hilmarsson talked me through three of the biggest hassles:
1) There's no avoiding it: "Real food" costs more
"My cost is always higher," Hilmarsson says bluntly — and that means his yogurt is more expensive. Prices vary by region, but at Whole Foods in Washington, DC, for example, Siggi's yogurt costs about $2 per individual (5.3 ounce) cup. Small cups from competitors usually cost about $1 each.
One big reason for the higher cost: Siggi's uses no artificial flavors and only real fruit, which is pricey and sometimes difficult to source. "Blueberries, for example, tend to be an expensive fruit," Hilmarsson says. "I could cut that down if I use the flavoring." But he won’t, so the yogurt costs more.
Instead of using corn syrup, Hilmarsson uses cane sugar, which is also more expensive. Plus, strained yogurts — like his Icelandic skyr — require about four times as much milk as regular yogurt does, "which comes into the cost in a very meaningful way," he says.
2) Getting flavors to "pop" can be challenging
If you don't use artificial flavoring or a lot of extra sugar, it can be difficult to create flavors that Americans like.
"Sometimes we don't get a flavor to pop with our strategy," Hilmarsson explains. For example, Americans expect cherry flavor to be quite sweet. But actual cherries are really tart. When Hilmarsson tried to make a cherry yogurt using his purist approach — only a limited amount of sugar, real fruit, no cherry-flavored chemicals — the result was way too sour for the US market.
"That would be one example where we have been limited in what we’re doing based on our set of standard ingredients," he says.
When you don't rely on additives, achieving consistent flavors is also a challenge. You need to make flavors that you can ensure taste pretty similar every time, but for example, real apples don't all taste the same. For his apple flavored-yogurt, Hilmarsson explains that he uses spices in the recipe to help balance out any differences from the apples.
3) It takes time for consumers to "convert"
It's not all bad news, though. Hilmarsson says Americans are slowly getting into yogurt that tastes like yogurt and not like cheesecake. The company is now the fastest-growing yogurt brand in the US, according to Nielsen.
But it took time to find consumers. Since its inception in 2006, Hilmarsson's company hasn't scaled as quickly as others in the $8 billion yogurt market. Over six years, Siggi's products went from being offered in only a few stores in New York to 2,500 stores across the United States. But since then, demand has grown more quickly. This year, the Icelandic yogurt has appeared in 8,500 stores. "Once consumers convert to Siggi's, they don’t go back," Hilmarsson says. "You just have to keep at it."