The European Commission had intended to allow firms to use the 'X% less' and 'no added salt' claims on their products to inform consumers that the food had been reformulated. But the EP thought the labelling changes would have "confused or misled consumers".
Barbara Gallani, the Food and Drink Federation's (FDE's) director of food safety and science, said: "'X% less' and 'no added salt' claims would have supported the food industry's drive to gradually reformulate products by making consumers readily aware of the health improvements in their favourite products.
"The European Parliament has failed to acknowledge the enormous efforts and investments that the industry has been putting into reformulation."
Meanwhile, the UK government has urged the industry to help it tackle the obesity crisis by reducing the calorie content in food. Should manufacturers continue to make "enormous efforts and investments" now they can't shout about it on the packaging?
"Fundamentally, it costs a lot of money," says Lindsey Bagley, technical consultant at nutrition consultancy Eureka. "Look at the millions of pounds Mars has spent reducing the fats in Mars Bars. The value of the brand is in retaining the eating quality. Manufacturers are striving to find different ways to achieve this and protect their position in the marketplace. It's not easy."
A small amount of fat or salt reduction is easier to achieve but without the 'X% less' claim, manufacturers can't inform consumers of the new, healthier product. Bagley says: "If you look at the US they tend to go full ball and aim for the marketing position of 'Zero fat'. But they suffer in the long-term because consumers stop buying the product because it's so compromised on taste. The consumer will revert back to the full-fat product.
"We've tended to go for a lower reduction, but a more sustainable product that is integrated into lifestyles. Is it going to taste good? If so, then it will succeed. Marketing alone won't ensure repeat purchases."
Kerry Ingredients & Flavours concurs: "Consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the taste of products with lower sugar, salt and fat profiles," says Roland Wientjes, the company's applications director. "Conventional flavouring approaches are increasingly unequal to the task of delivering reformulated products with traditional eating appeal."
The firm has developed products designed to change the perception of taste in products reformulated with less salt, sugar and fat flavour modulation technology.
"However, it is important to remember there is no magic ingredient," says Wientjes.
"What's needed is a wide-ranging perspective on taste, looking across the whole food matrix, encompassing flavours and other taste ingredient options. We focus on technical solutions as well as flavours and ingredients.
"When the fat content in a food product is reduced, the balance between fat and water soluble parts of the flavour needs adjusting to create a new flavour release that is close the original and maintains the same mouthfeel and cream perception. The big challenge is to restore as far as possible the flavour perception, which can be obtained in a full-fat or full-sugar product."
He says Kerry Ingredients has developed enzymatically modified dairy ingredients that are able to create both mouthfeel and cream perception over a low-fat route, thereby providing a starting point for "great tasting low-fat products".
Treats that taste like treats
To meet consumers' desire for creaminess in texture, National Starch has developed a range of co-texturising ingredients, including N-Dulge FR. Designed to reduce saturated fat in baked products by mimicking the role butter, margarine or bakery fats play in a cake recipe, it can be used to cut the fat and saturated fat content of pound cakes by two thirds, while reducing the calorie content by 25%.
National Starch's nutrition marketing manager Laura Goodbrand says: "Some full-fat products are consumed for their indulgent nature by people looking for a treat. Starches can mimic the ways that cream or fat lines the mouth so consumers feel the indulgent sensation."
The product also offers cost benefits. Goodbrand explains: "There tends to be a value-related element to our brief so our ingredients enable firms to reduce costs by improving yield or speeding up the process.
"At the same time we need to ensure the texture still has the indulgent factor because people have that expectation of creaminess."
Wientjes also highlights the challenge presented by the indulgence factor particularly when it comes to reducing salt in snacks. "Snacks present a real challenge as salt is often key to their taste appeal," says Wientjes. "All international markets are moving towards healthier snacks, however, different markets view the move in different ways. Snacks are about fun, enjoyment and indulgence. We have to ensure customers can fulfil their market obligations while also delivering a great-tasting snack."
Where fat acts as a moisture barrier, such as when baking pastry, lowering its levels can also impact shelf-life, with the product becoming stale too quickly or the permeability altered.
These problems can be overcome by using the right fat, according to ADM. The firm has developed NovaLipid fluid shortening to reduce fat levels in short crust pastry or dough. "Additional processing gives the solid fat in the fluid more functionality and the extra liquid oil enables flavours to be carried more effectively, overcoming any excessive dryness," says Jo Bruce, research and development manager, ADM Trading. "This means fat can be cut by 10 to 20% without losing sensory appeal."
"From a nutritional perspective, it is becoming clear that the type of fat used is much more important than the amount of fat per se. Mono and polyunsaturated fats are actively good for you at recommended consumption levels, and contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential for life. In addition, all fats help with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins."
Bruce says more importance has been placed on what is used in place of fat in the past two years. "To optimise health and manage weight, substituting simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates like fibre is a widely accepted route. In five years' time, manufacturers may need to be considering alternatives to simple carbohydrates rather than fat replacers."
But will firms still be reformulating in five years' time considering the legislative and financial barriers they face?
Formulation in future
Bagley predicts a slowdown in the middle of the market composite products such as ready meals, snacks and sandwiches now that smaller 'nudges' to reformulation won't be claimable. "Unless you have a marketing position as a tool to draw attention to your changed product on the shelf there is much less motivation to spend the time and effort," she says. "Without the 'X% less claim, very large changes in the composition of a product will now need to be made to enable a claim."
For others, legislation is providing opportunities. But overseas. Goodbrand says: "Something that will boost its importance further is the addition of nutritional labelling across Europe. There's a real increase in interest in dairy applications such as yogurt and cheese."
Gallani thinks the health trend will continue to drive reformulation but it's not all down to manufacturers to solve the obesity crisis. It's part of a broader range of interventions: "There needs to be a three-pronged approach: you need to combine the drive from consumers with government engagement and a healthy competitive industry that can deliver solutions."
Goodbrand says the obesity issue would be eased by getting children to eat more healthily at a younger age. "Brands that target the younger generation will see the fruits of their labour if they provide treats that are better for you."
McCain Foods' approach combines both Goodbrand's and Gallani's philosophies. Speaking at the recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Keynote Seminar: Obesity 2012, McCain Foods' corporate affairs director Bill Bartlett claimed the firm had: "Transformed the cooking habits of the nation to the point where the chip pan has now been banished."
In 2006 the firm reacted to consumer concern with saturated fats. Apart from oven chips, which were cooked in sunflower oil, the rest of its range was cooked in palm oil, which is 48% saturate in its liquid form. McCain moved, at "relatively great expense", to sunflower oil, which is 12% in its liquid form and less than 1% in the product form, so effectively low saturated fat.
The firm started work with the Food Standards Agency on salt reduction back in 2001 and has worked with the Scottish School Meal Authorities to cut salt in potato products by 22%. It runs non-branded exercises such as Potato Story , which aimed to reconnect school children with potatoes and vegetables.
Interestingly, these activities that are not directly related to sales have helped to firmly establish the brand, which is seeing "strong growth". No bitter pill for McCain then.