DeRusha Eats: Caribou Coffee

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Caribou Coffee is cleaning up its drink menu.

The company is banning a laundry list of artificial colors, dyes, preservatives and other ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and MSG, from entering its cups.

The Brooklyn Center-based business pledged this month a commitment to making “clean label” beverages, meaning that its drinks won’t contain artificial ingredients or chemicals that consumers don’t recognize.

While there is no U.S. standard for clean label products (as there is for organic ones), it is a growing trend for food-makers. Panera has announced a commitment to redo its menu, and Golden Valley-based General Mills has also been reformulating many of its popular cereals.

Caribou said it is the first national coffee chain to offer a clean label drink menu.

“The biggest challenge of going clean is the R&D,” Jenifer Hagness, senior director of product innovation at Caribou Coffee, said. “A lot of these products didn’t exist.”

Even though a cup of brewed coffee is obviously free of artificial colors and ingredients, according to Hagness, Caribou sells more flavored drinks, mochas and lattes than plain cups of coffee. Getting real chocolate syrups, real caramels and drink toppers, like cookies and cereal, that qualified as clean was not easy.

“It took years. We partnered with all of our suppliers to ultimately get the technology to a place where we could bring amazing products to store. No one else has caramel like we do,” she said.

Caribou used to use caramel syrup in a bottle for its caramel coolers and lattes. Now, it’s a pouch of real caramel.

“Most of the competition uses a syrup for caramel. But not at Caribou. We wanted to use caramel kind of like you make at home, so with real butter, real ingredients. Kind of like your grandmother makes. This is real caramel,” she said.

The raspberry syrup isn’t bright red and thick, it’s a lighter hue. The mint syrup is essentially clear, instead of bright green.

“It’s true to form,” Hagness said.

Sugar-free flavor shots are now flavored with monk fruit extract, a low calorie natural sweetener.

“It is more expensive. We’ve been trying to balance costs, and apart from inflation we haven’t taken price hikes,” she said.

On a new website, Caribou is listing 70 ingredients they’ve never used, or never will use. The list was inspired by a similar list Whole Foods uses, and includes things like high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and MSG.

“We’re 91 percent clean today. Most of our beverages are already clean,” she said.

Some of the drink toppers have to be fixed, according to Hagness, and chai tea has a preservative being engineered out.

All the large food companies have spent years practicing food science: balancing the desire to make customers feel good about ingredient origins, while making the food continue to taste good, and taste like the customer has grown to expect.

“We’d much rather things taste like they’re supposed to taste like, instead of tasting synthetic or artificial,” she said.

To find a Caribou Coffee near you, visit the coffee chain online.

More from Jason DeRusha
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