New and Improved Hot Pockets? Buyer, Be Aware

If you're going to take the trouble tell us that you're using better quality ingredients, why not go all the way and offer a really fresh and wholesome product? Are Hot Pockets new and improved?
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Wellness is at the top of everyone's mind. We want better quality at a good value. Most of us are not cooking from scratch anymore. So when Hot Pockets tries to reinvent itself as a fresh and wholesome brand, I pay attention. This reinvention strategy is akin to Taco Bell's hiring of a chef as "key brand ambassador" to elevate their menu with "premium ingredients."

Nestle, the maker of the little microwaveable frozen bricks of dough and cheesy filling known as Hot Pockets, has given them a makeover in an attempt to convince a generation that grew up nuking these dubious snacks after school that they have become healthy as a reason to keep eating them.

Debuting in 1983, Hot Pockets was marketed to the "latchkey kid" generation as a safe way for kids to have a healthy snack (and I use the term loosely) when they got home from school alone. Popped into the microwave, parents could feel assured their kids' snacking would not result in a house fire.

The new and improved Hot Pockets are being touted as having "Better Taste. Better Quality." Let's take a look at what improvements are really being made.

A review of their nutritional panel reveals that in 2010, Hot Pockets contained about 90 ingredients. The new and improved version of these frozen pockets of meat, cheese and dough contain... well, I lost count after 73. In this new and improved Pepperoni Pizza with Buttery Garlic Seasoned Crust, I see partially hydrogenated soybean oil and palm kernel oil, artificial butter flavor and a host of artificial chemical ingredients designed to imply that the flavor is fresh and wholesome. Is it? I don't think so.

Has Hot Pockets gone far enough? Or is it all just marketing to manipulate yesterday's tweens, today's young generation who have come to value sustainability, fresh food and wellness? After all, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, "most millennials, including men, now consider themselves to be 'foodies' ... and they are focused on quality and health." A recent article in Supermarket News reported that millennials' tastes are far more global (and plant-based) now. "Fresh salad with beets, avocados and veggie dishes with eggplants are among their favorites," the grocery insider reports. "Members of the demographic are also fans of the Middle Eastern staple chickpeas."

By marketing Hot Pockets as fresh and wholesome, a clear message is being sent. They are telling us that this is not junk food; they are telling us it's healthy to consume these frozen snacks. On their splashy new website, replete with woody grain textures like a cutting board (implying that there's actually a chef somewhere making your Hot Pocket from scratch), Nestle touts the fact that three out of five taste testers preferred the "new and improved" Pockets. That doesn't seem like an overwhelmingly successful reaction.

Nestle tells us that the new Hot Pockets contains premium cuts of meat, real cheese, and dough that's baked fresh daily. The photo on the box even has a random sprig of parsley with the ingredients to imply there's a vegetable involved here somehow. Tomato paste? Dried onion? Garlic powder? Do they count as fresh? Is the meat grass fed so it's lower in saturated fat? Is it, along with the cheese, free of hormones? What about GMOs? With several versions of soy in the ingredients, GMOs present a real concern, especially to the generation they want to capture.

My question to Nestle is simple. If you're going to take the trouble tell us that you're using better quality ingredients, why not go all the way and offer a really fresh and wholesome product? Are Hot Pockets new and improved? Well, the high fructose corn syrup seems to be off the label, which is great news. I love that you use real cheese now and better quality meats. The calories and sodium still seem high for a snack but you can't have everything, I guess.

Why not take things a step further and give people a real new and improved product? It will take real food, real ingredients to show that Hot Pockets are new and improved. Use real butter, not artificial; diced onions in place of powdered ones; real tomato sauce instead of tomato paste; and include whole grain flours in all your crusts for better health. It will take more than "signature pepperoni" shrink-wrapped in "whole grain crusts" with hydrogenated oil to appeal to the much more educated public

The younger generation of today has real concerns about health and the environment at the top of their minds (along with getting a job). These 80 million people make up the largest generation in the world and will influence the thinking of the generation after them as well as people older than them. That's a lot of business.

This is a generation looking for sustainability and honesty. They grew up on Fast Food Nation and The Daily Show and expect more than corporate lies. Calling something fresh and wholesome, better quality, farm fresh or premium implies something very specific. A read of the ingredient panel, which is a who's who of the same cheap, artificial ingredients as before will do little to build trust in consumers.

We have become skeptical consumers who need more than a food personality to be sold. We need more than a chef. Just because we see food professionals in commercials tasting various dishes until declaring one... finally... to be good enough doesn't mean their food actually is better for us.

The killer is it just would not be that hard to make truly better quality food. Would it cost more? Maybe, but most of us would pay more to know we were eating real food.

Every fast food place has realized that health has taken center stage. It's no longer about becoming rich selling just anything because there's more profit to be made. People are getting fatter and sicker and are beginning to realize it's the food they're eating. As a result, they're beginning to hold food corporations accountable. And to their credit, food corporations are stepping up to the challenge.

And so, Nestle, when you're ready to really overhaul your products and produce real food, there's a whole generation of people just waiting to try it.

Come on. You know how easy it would be to make a real pocket sandwich made from real ingredients. How about you actually make real food for real people?

Just sayin'.

For more by Christina Pirello, click here.

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