Here's the latest goal for foodmakers: Perfect the art of imperfection.
When stretching out the dough for its premium "Artisan Pizzas," Domino's workers are instructed not to worry about making the rectangles too perfect: The pies are supposed to have a more rustic look.
At McDonald's, the egg whites for the new breakfast sandwich called the Egg White Delight McMuffin have a loose shape rather than the round discs used in the original Egg McMuffin.
And Kraft Foods took more than two years to develop a process to make the thick, uneven slabs of turkey in its Carving Board line look like leftovers from a homemade meal rather than the cookie-cutter ovals typical of most lunch meat.
"The goal is to get the same action as if you were cutting with a knife," said Paul Morin, a Kraft engineer.
Food companies are responding to the adage that people eat with their eyes. Americans still love their fast food and packaged snacks, but they're increasingly turning their noses up at foods that look overly processed. Home-cooked meals — or ones that at least look like they were homemade — are seen as more wholesome and authentic.
The result is that companies are tossing out the identical shapes and drab colors that scream of factory conveyor belts. There's no way to measure exactly how much foodmakers are investing to make their products look more natural or fresh. But adaptation is seen as necessary for fueling steady growth.
In many cases, food products get their wholesome appearance because of the different or stripped-down ingredients companies are using to make them more natural, said Michael Cohen, a visiting assistant professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business. But in other cases, companies are making tweaks just to achieve a desired look.
"Food manufacturers are adapting by the way they mold the product or the end color or texture they want the product to be," he said.
At Hillshire Brands Co., which makes lunch meats, hot dogs and sausages, executives also are attuned to the fact that more people prize foods they feel are natural. At an industry conference in February, CEO Sean Connolly noted that in addition to taste, the appearance of its food needed work.
Reggie Moore, the company's vice president of marketing, concedes that the meaning of "natural" varies from person to person. But as the definition evolves, Hillshire is taking care to signal the natural qualities of its meat visually.
In revamping its turkey slices, for example, one of the cosmetic touchups the company made was darkening the edges of the meat with caramel coloring to give the impression that it was just sliced from a Thanksgiving roast.
Ultimately, Moore said the change didn't impact the taste.