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Charlotte Food Babe blogger keeps the pressure on Kraft Foods

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.
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- Courtesy of Vani Hari.
Food Babe blogger Vani Hari of Charlotte.

If your SpongeBob SquarePants macaroni & cheese is looking a little paler, thank Charlotte food blogger Vani Hari.

Seven months ago, Hari and 100 Days of Real Food blogger Lisa Leake started a campaign to get Kraft Foods to remove yellow dyes No. 5 and 6 from the American versions of its macaroni & cheese.

In Great Britain, Kraft’s “cheesy pasta,” Brit-speak for mac & cheese, is colored with paprika and beta carotene because of stricter rules on artificial food colors, which some sources (but not all) claim have health risks for children.

Starting the campaign

Hari and Leake started with a petition at Change.org. That got 349,000 signatures. They both went on national TV shows and got interviewed all over the country. (Several reports called them “Charlotte moms” although only Leake has children.)

Leake ended her involvement after a couple of weeks, but Hari continued on the campaign. She had quit her job as a business consultant at the end of 2012 to make food activism and her website, www.foodbabe.com, her full-time job.

Seven months later, Hari has kind of gotten her way: Kraft announced last week that it was making several changes in its kid-focused “character-shaped lines” of mac & cheese, including SpongeBob, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the one that promotes the movie “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

The company is increasing the amount of whole grains, lowering the amount of saturated fat and sodium – and switching from food dyes to paprika and beta carotene.

The company says the change wasn’t caused by the petition or the campaign, although Hari says, “They’re obviously listening to us.”

Hari says third-quarter earnings reports show Kraft profits are down, which she attributes to lower sales of macaroni & cheese.

“I was able to get people to vote with their dollars,” she says. “Kraft saw that hit on the bottom line.”

In a news release, though, Kraft says lower earnings were a reflection of shipment changes involved with spinning off its global snack products as a separate company, Mondelez International, in October 2012.

A full-time job

For the moment, Hari is sticking with the campaign. Taking on Kraft has become a full-time job, she says. She still wants Kraft to remove food dyes from all of its products, including the main mac & cheese dinner. She thinks more change will come in early 2014.

“These companies bet on you giving up,” she says. “But that will never happen with me.”

In the meantime, she has finished a proposal for a book on food activism, and she has added videos to her website that she calls “Food Babe TV.”

“I realized this is my calling and what I want to do.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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