Chick-fil-A is working on removing artificial dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and some preservatives from its menu in an ongoing effort to improve food quality — a move that the company has not promoted in hopes that consumers wouldn’t notice any change in taste.

The move has been widely attributed to pressure from food blogger and nutrition gadfly Vani Hari, who has written about Chick-fil-A’s use of certain ingredients on her website FoodBabe.com over the past two years.

However, Jodie Worrell, senior nutrition consultant at Chick-fil-A, said the Atlanta-based chain has actually been working on tweaking ingredients for years in an effort to improve the menu’s nutritional profile — though officials did meet with Hari last year to hear her concerns.

Worrell, a registered dietitian who has worked on the chain’s culinary staff for about 12 years, said the effort began in the 1990s, when Chick-fil-A put grilled chicken on the menu as an alternative to the traditional fried chicken sandwich.

In 2004, when the chain added a fruit cup to the menu, the team began looking at other steps to make the menu more healthful in response to growing consumer demand. In 2006 the chain eliminated trans fats, for example, and in 2010 the company began looking for ways to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. Several times, the chain has gradually cut back on sodium in certain products.

Along the way, the company intended to keep such efforts quiet, hoping guests wouldn’t even notice the changes for the better. “We call it stealth health,” said Worrell. “We didn’t necessarily want the customer to know we’ve tweaked their favorite product.

“If customers ask, we’ll tell them,” she added. “But it’s almost like you’re forcing them to notice a change if you tell them.”

Currently, Chick-fil-A is testing a reformulated white-bread bun without preservatives in about 200 units, and the company is working with bakery suppliers to remove HFCS, Worrell said. The sweetener has already been removed from the chain’s bagels and its golden wheat bread, and soon will be eliminated from certain sauces and dressings.

The bread preservative isn’t needed since the buns are delivered fresh to restaurants several times each week, said Worrell. The chain is also testing the elimination of a yellow food dye from its soup base and ice cream.

Worrell said it’s typical for Europe to take action on potentially harmful food dyes first, and such ingredients fall out of favor in the U.S. later.

“So we knew it was coming down the pike,” she said.

The chain is also testing a peanut oil without TBHQ, a chemical related to butane that makes the oil more shelf stable.

“We go through peanut oil so quickly; we just don’t need it,” she said.

In a recent blog posting, however, Hari said her No. 1 priority has yet to be addressed: Chick-fil-A’s use of monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

That’s a tricky one, said Worrell, because MSG is a seasoning enhancer and its elimination would likely alter the taste of Chick-fil-A’s “hero” product: its fried chicken breast sandwich.

The chain is in the beginning stages of evaluating recipes that might allow for the elimination of MSG. “But it’s very early on,” she said. “We don’t want to talk about it too much at this point.”

Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A has been trying to do a better job of promoting the fresh preparation in restaurant kitchens. The unprocessed whole-breast-meat chicken is hand breaded, for example; biscuits are rolled, cut and baked in house; and lemons are squeezed for lemonade.

The company’s website features a series of videos that show employees describing how much of the menu is  “happily hand crafted.”

“We’ve been doing that since we opened,” said Worrell. “We’ve always taken pride in making things by hand.”

The mostly franchised Chick-fil-A chain includes about 1,750 locations in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout