The New York Post featured a column last week by Lauren Tousignant about a worrying trend for Oreo aficionados. It seems increasing numbers of Americans are finding their favorite sandwich cookies have changed, now tasting “chalky,” “cheap,” or “weird.”
Tousignant’s article is titled “Did Nabisco Ruin America’s Favorite Cookie?” But that headline is a bit misleading. Oreo and Nabisco are now both brands of Mondelez International. Most people have trouble pronouncing Mondelez’ name, let alone keeping track of their many brands. Oreo is a huge business for Mondelez; they made $2 billion dollars in 2016 producing more than 40 billion cookies. Would they really mess with success?
The company says no. In a statement to Breitbart News, Mondelez International said, “Oreo cookies which are made for sale in the US have the same recipe and taste profile, regardless of which manufacturing plant they are made at within our supply chain network. In addition, all of our manufacturing sites are held to the same high standards for safety and quality.”
Writing in the Post, Tousignant did a good job of documenting the problem. She gathered anecdotal evidence from family and friends, and also studied consumer complaint forums, which there is no shortage of on the Internet. She found a “significant increase” in complaints starting in November of 2016.
She also effectively laid out some of the reasons why food products may experience changes in flavor, both intentional and unintentional. These include the recipe change which Mondelez denied to both the Post and Breitbart News. As Tousignant points out in the Post, even a change in equipment used between old and new production plants can play a huge role in the flavor of the food they produce.
Readers that have kept up on the flow of American jobs to Mexico will note the fact that Mondelez moved a portion of their Oreo production from Chicago to Mexico. Oreos were made in Chicago for 60 years, would the move from that old of a production plant to a new Mexican facility be the exact type of equipment change Tousignant describes? Some customers boycotted Oreos over the Mexico move, but that was primarily over the lost jobs. Who knew that a few short years later Mondelez might be in a position to lose customers due to their product quality?
Mondelez, like many companies that produce products in Mexico, is quick to say the quality is the same. Their statement even says they have the same “taste profile.” But for many Americans, experience and common sense dictate that this just isn’t true. Some companies are even willing to admit there is a difference in product quality — Fender offers Stratocaster guitars made in Mexico at a much lower price than their made in America product line — recognizing a difference in quality and materials. Whether we are talking cars, guitars or cookies, sending production south of the border is bound to effect the product in some way no matter how good the company’s Mexican facility is.
Some psychologists quoted in the article take another angle, suggesting differences between people’s taste buds result in Oreos tasting differently. That explanation doesn’t hold water, or milk if you’re an Oreo dunker. It’s like telling someone “you’re tasting it wrong,” in a food equivalent to Apple CEO Steve Jobs infamously replying to a customer with iPhone reception problems “you’re holding it wrong.”
There is another possible reason for quality variations that isn’t included in the Post article. As companies rapidly expand their product lines to suit the short attention spans of their customers, they sometimes stray from the core competencies that turned their brands into billion-dollar powerhouses. In the case of Oreos, I grew up with only regular Oreos and “Double Stuf” Oreos. The Double Stuf Oreos were so forbidden in my parent’s household that I still haven’t had one more than 20 years after I moved away from home.
That has all changed. Mondelez currently has 59 varieties of Oreos available; including different flavors of Oreos, minis, thin crisps, thins, and fudge covered thins. The variety is almost endless! They have even succumbed to the national trend of having a limited edition pumpkin spice flavored Oreo. Sorry if you consider that link a tease, since Amazon doesn’t have them available, but I didn’t want to be accused of fake sandwich cookie news. Personally, I’m holding out for pumpkin spice Diet Coke.
That sort of variety, including different fillings and cookies, can result in a tremendously complex inventory and production management puzzle. Maybe Oreos are suffering because the company is trying to make every combination available instead of doing what they do best — making regular Oreos.
Mondelez International may state that they haven’t changed Oreos, but something is going on here. Whether it is because of their production move to Mexico, or a mix of multiple factors, customers are noticing a change in Oreos. Like many companies have in the past, they may not take action to rectify consumer perceptions until they’ve taken a revenue hit. There are after all many Oreo replacement options available, from house brands like the Joe-Joes that my kids prefer, to the Newman-O’s that Tousignant prefers.
Another option that many people aren’t aware of is the return of Hydrox, which bills itself as “the original creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookie.” Hydrox disappeared from the market in 1999, but has been brought back by a company called Leaf Brands. Leaf Brands cleverly uses retro packaging to appeal to customer’s nostalgia, but also has made some smart marketing decisions for today’s customers. According to their website, Hydrox are made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, and do not use hydrogenated oils. If you need a cookie fix and your Oreos “taste like dirt” as some told the Post, it may be time to try Hydrox.
Of course, some people who don’t like Oreos are gleefully enjoying the pain of Oreo-lovers finding their milk-dunked treat isn’t the same anymore. They shouldn’t be quick to judge — they should instead remember that Mondelez owns a dizzying array from brands ranging from Hall’s cough drops to Fig Newtons. Everyone in America eats something that Mondelez produces — except for a few diet freaks I know — so don’t be quick to mock the Oreos fans.