Healthy? You must be kidding!

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Related tags: Snack foods

Thanks to education secretary Ruth Kelly's campaign to get rid of 'junk food' in schools, snack manufacturers are reformulating their products. But not everything is as healthy as it seems, says Sue Scott

If you are not responsible about producing food for kids you should be "put up against a wall and shot", says Jonty White, director of Burts Chips, as the screw tightens on the £500m children's snack food industry.

A curious statement, coming from a man who makes crisps one of education secretary Ruth Kelly's targets in the non-negotiable clamp down on so-called 'junk' food in schools from 2006 but, like many at the sharp end of an increasingly confused and polarised debate about diet and children's health, White believes integrity is what really counts on ingredients lists if snacks are to survive a puritanical onslaught.

"We are very open about our ingredients declaration. We declare our sodium levels as salt and we are the only crisp manufacturer that tests for fat content when it's at its highest, which makes us look higher than some of the rest, but at least it's honest," says White, who launched a no-salt range of portion-controlled 25g bags for kids last year and added four naturally flavoured variants to make up a one-a-day lunchbox variety pack.

Worse things than crisps

But while White might insist "there are much worse things out there than a packet of crisps for your child", as far as Joe Harvey of the Health Education Trust (HET), a non governmental organisation taking the lead in setting standards for children's foods, is concerned, most confectionery and packeted snacks won't make it into the new Eden.

According to Harvey, who claims to have had several conversations with major snacks and drinks manufacturers over the last two months, Kelly's announcement of radical reform to school food has kicked product development teams into action. "The industry won't change anything if it doesn't have to change anything," says Harvey. "There's a huge amount of interest from major manufacturers now. They realise that they will effectively be out of every school and most leisure centres unless they pull their finger out. And the knock-on effect in other channels could be severe, he warns.

The development of an HET 'kite mark' for children's snacks to be promoted in schools has left many in the industry nervous that the agenda is out of control, being driven outside of Whitehall and turning the fog surrounding nutrient profiling and labelling into a real pea-souper. "The HET is like God at the moment, says one insider. "It's an interesting role for a non-governmental organisation.

"There's a lot of confusion," says Graeme Mulheron, sales and marketing manager for Lyme Regis Foods, which has led the niche healthy sweet snack market and recently entered the mainstream aisles for the first time with Kids Break, an unsweetened cereal bar which is going head to head with KitKat on the biscuit counter. He adds: "If you put a spell check over the ingredients list of most cereal bars it would struggle to find a word it recognised, says Mulheron. "Major manufacturers just weren't addressing the issue."

According to Finlay Lockie, director of Snapz, which uses the five-a-day logo to promote its packs of dried apple crisps, concrete guidelines on what is and is not acceptable in children's snacks are well overdue although he deplores recent shotgun policy making.

"There's no point huffing and puffing that people snack in the UK. It cannot be reversed now, so the only sensible approach is to offer snacks that are genuinely healthy," he says.

But he echoes Jonty White's concerns that lack of honesty is undermining attempts to restore confidence in the sector. "The two original Apple Snapz were the beginning of a campaign to build a range of healthy crisp snacks that have integrity at their heart and no crap in them. I have been shocked at the twaddle talked about health by companies offering the same old thing. What I find annoying is that some of the major snack makers are producing snacks which are less unhealthy but marketing them as healthy.

Fourteen new variants join the Snapz apple range this month, including naturally flavoured strawberry, blackcurrant, banana and orange crisps, together with three vegetable varieties and a range of Mini Snapz cubes in 12g bags aimed at youngsters.

It's the kind of out-of-the-box thinking needed to send children's snacks to the front of the class, according to Nicky Owen, director of the international consultancy Dragon Brands and author of the report, How to be hot on health and cool for kids.

"There are some general rules with kids," she says. "If it's got bits in they won't like it; we are programmed from babies to like sweet foods, so work with that, not against it; and remember kids don't like to work hard."

No surprise there, then. But, unlike Harvey, who believes smaller manufacturers have a golden opportunity to wrestle the market from the big boys, this playground could equally be dominated by major brands, says Owen. "It's about using brands that are associated with treat occasions. Indulgence brands have a strength, not a weakness.

Effort on packaging

Given kids' inherent conservatism and low boredom threshold, she advises spending as much time on developing the packaging as the product. Preparation is also key, says Owen, who says McDonald's has seen an upturn in sales of branded packs of prepared fruit for lunchboxes, satisfying parents' desire to look responsible and kids' desire to look cool in front of their mates. But while Owen is confident that "judging by the briefs we've received there's going to be a rush of products to the market", others are not so sure.

"Most manufacturers barely have their eyes open," says Ken Johnston, a consultant who has worked on the development of healthy, cereal-based snacks with major manufacturers over the past two years. His advice is don't tinker with what you've got, but go back to the drawing board.

"It's difficult to make a traditional product with low fat, for instance; it's worth considering coming up with a product that's simply not there yet," he says. FM

Gourmet Guide

The chilli

Origin:​ The chilli pepper, a hot member of the capsicum family, was first cultivated in Central and South America in around 3000BC. Columbus brought seeds back to Europe in 1493 and from there chillies have spread to the cuisines of the world. Natural diversification and biotechnology have produced hundreds of varieties, varying ?greatly in size, shape, colour and strength.

Chilli powder:​ a mixture of two or more chillies ranging from mild to hot, and other spices, including cumin, oregano and garlic powder, was invented by William Gebhardt in 1894, who ran chilli bits through a meat grinder at home and then dried the grounds.

Types:​ Today there are around 400 types of chilli grown in countries from China and Thailand to Indonesia, India and Mexico. Some of the most common are jalapeno, serrano poblano, yellow wax, birds eye and cayenne.

Nutritional properties:​ Chillies contain vitamins A, C, E and B1-3, while hot chillies like Habanero contain 357% more vitamin C than an orange. As a rule, the red fresh fruit are two or three times hotter than green fruit and dried pods are up to 10 times hotter than fresh ones. As the pods mature and darken, high quantities of vitamin C are gradually replaced with beta carotene and the capsaicin levels are at their highest, whose thermal properties are believed to speed up the metabolic rate, burning off calories faster.

Chilli is also mildly antibacterial and can be used as a gargle for sore throats and laryngitis.

Culinary use:​ Chillies are used in chilli powder, which is a key ingredient in ethnic foods, including Indian and Mexican. It is also the base for Harissa, a traditional hot, spicy North African paste made with caraway and coriander that is stirred into stews as seasoning. Chillies can also be used in sauces (think sweet chilli), jams and relishes and marinades.

It is also starting to be used in sweet applications, such as ice cream, and works ?well with strawberries and chocolate.

Crisps or not …

When is a crisp not a crisp? When it's a Quadrito, according to cereal ingredients firm Limagrain, which has spent the past two years on the holy grail of a no-salt, no-fat alternative to traditional crisps and believes it has now hit the jackpot.

"When we started developing healthy products two years ago, everyone told us we were mad," says marketing director David Pearson. But as diet moved up the European agenda, sales of Limagrain's Quadritos a 3-D wheat, maize or potato-based snack which can be expanded to any shape by air without fat have gone ballistic, while recent trials proved the product can be produced with less than 0.5% salt. With an inherently high fiddle factor Quadritos are going down well with own-label and branded manufacturers.

"There are a lot of families who will not allow traditional snacks in the house, but the kids would probably like to eat them, says Pearson. "It's not a market substitute, but a new idea for snack manufacturers."

Related topics: NPD

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