Oscar Mayer Has Ditched Some Controversial Ingredients From Its Hot Dogs

Oscar Mayer is the latest iconic brand to get a recipe overhaul.

On Monday, Kraft Heinz (KHC) will announce that the food manufacturer has reformulated Oscar Mayer’s popular hot dogs by removing artificial preservatives and ditching added nitrates and nitrites. Kraft Heinz has proclaimed it is the first national hot dog maker to make the switch.

“We are making radical changes to every single one of our dogs,” Greg Guidotti, head of marketing at Oscar Mayer, told Fortune in an interview. “We are going to get better dogs into your hands.”

The nation’s leading food and beverage manufacturers—an industry collectively known as Big Food—have been busy reformulating legacy brands to be more competitive in a world in which consumers are gravitating away from highly processed foods and instead favoring fresher alternatives, like vegetables and fruits, that are found along the perimeter of the grocery store. Cheerios, Quaker Oats, Diet Pepsi and other brands have all seen makeovers as Big Food aims to make those decades-old brands compelling, especially to younger millennial shoppers.

The action Kraft Heinz is taking on Oscar Mayer mirrors a similar reformulation it enacted for the iconic Kraft Mac & Cheese brand. Kraft Heinz changed the formula by replacing artificial dyes with ingredients like paprika and turmeric to maintain the bright yellow color that the mac & cheese is known for. It also launched a big campaign around the effort, touting the fact that it sold 50 million boxes of the new recipe with hardly anyone noticing.

This year, the food maker is planning a big ad campaign to tout the Oscar Mayer recipe switch. “Oscar Mayer is making big changes to hot dogs,” the ad proclaims. “Why? For the love of hot dogs.” The marketing campaign kicks off May 1 and includes investments in TV, print, digital and social ads. Kraft Heinz says it is doubling the marketing budget behind Oscar Mayer this year to support the “For The Love of Hot Dogs” campaign. Oscar Mayer is also sending out six of the brand’s Wienermobile vehicles this summer to spread the word.


“Hot dogs, like mac and cheese, are universally loved,” said Guidotti, who also led the 2016 marketing campaign for Kraft Mac & Cheese. “But like mac & cheese, there are some concerns about ingredients.”

Guidotti says that for many decades, hot dogs were a staple food for American families. In more recent years, it has become more of a special treat, thus the category hasn’t seen much growth. “There are a few foods for kids out there—hot dogs, pizza, mac & cheese, chicken nuggets—that if you put them in front of kids, they would smile. But parents haven’t felt as good about putting them in front of their kids,” he added.

When talking to consumers, Kraft Heinz says it repeatedly heard that preservatives found in hot dogs were a concern. The company spent a little over a year perfecting the recipe switch, but also ensuring the taste and shelf stability of the dogs remained the same. Kraft Heinz says the price will remain the same for the “better” dogs.

In the U.S., the Oscar Mayer brand is the market leader in both the processed meat and chilled processed red meat categories, according to research firm Euromonitor. It competes aggressively in the category with the Tyson and Hillshire Farm brands, both owned by Tyson Foods (TSN), as well as Hormel Foods (HRL) and privately held Johnsonville. Most of the top brands posted sales declines for 2016, Euromonitor data shows.

Guidotti says that the Oscar Mayer campaign will be deemed a success if it can boost sales and also lift the overall category, both during the marketing campaign and after it is completed. The company is, of course, bullish about the prospects of a hit.

“What gives us confidence to talk about this is we know we have a winning product,” Guidotti said.

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