Penny chews, sherbet dip dabs and flying saucers - everyone remembers the childhood thrill of scanning the sweetshop shelf in search of their favourite treats. But the treasures of yesteryear may soon fall from grace when the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launches a consumer awareness campaign as part of its saturated fat and energy intake programme.
The Food and Drink Federation's Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery group (BCCC) is all too aware of the threat that lies ahead. "Like many other sectors, we're quite concerned about the shock tactics that have been mentioned as part of the research that the FSA commissioned," group head Barbara Gallani tells Food Manufacture. "We've been quite vocal about this: a campaign to demonise foods, rather than promoting a balanced diet would be a blow for the sector. People don't want to feel guilty every time they have a biscuit with a cup of tea!"
However, the Agency's plan of action is by no means clear. "Sometimes, FSA officials say they're going to use shock tactics and other times they say they won't. As with many other aspects of the saturated fat reduction project, there isn't much clarity, so we are trying to double guess what is going to happen and to engage as much as possible with the FSA officials who are in charge of the project."
The saturated fat campaign isn't the only area where the BCCC has been left in the dark. There are also frustrations surrounding product labelling and the nutrition and health claims legislation. This states that products must have reduced their saturated fat content by 30% before they can make an on-pack claim, which means that if bakers and confectioners make gradual reductions of less than 30%, they are unable to inform consumers.
"We believe that the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation has put a lot of obstacles in the way of food innovation and in our sector there are additional restrictions because of the nutrient profiles. It's really a challenge to do something positive and not be able to communicate it," says Gallani. "We had the opinion from EFSA [the European Food Safety Authority] on nutrient profiles, but that didn't really clarify the direction we're going to take on this and it looks like it's going to take some time for the member states to start discussions. There is value in having boundaries, but they can't be as strict as they are at the moment because some reductions are not achievable."
Portion sizes are another bone of contention. "The message that we are trying to pass on to the FSA is that this is a complex issue and you can't just take a shortcut to reducing portions. Half-size digestive biscuits are not going to have the desired effect!" says Gallani. However, she claims that work is being done to establish realistic portions. "We're aiming for something in-between what people eat and what people should eat, so that we don't go all the way too quickly."
She claims that portion control is a particularly tricky area. This is partly because of packaging. "Is it sensible, now that we're all trying to reduce packaging material, to go for individually wrapped smaller portions?" she asks. Also, there is a risk that reducing portion sizes could result in a consumer backlash. "If you used the same sized packs as you do now, but put in less product, is the consumer being misled; or helped because they are eating less?" she questions. "There is a role for reduced portion sizes, but you don't want to do it so drastically that consumers feeling they're not getting value for money."
With the government's constant focus on obesity and so much pressure on industry to make healthier products, it would be easy to write off the BCCC sector. But Gallani is confident that there is a future for the sweeter things in life. "Eating habits will change, but this doesn't mean that the sector will shrink. It just needs to adapt," she says. "The big message is about consumer understanding and responsibility. You need to find a way of helping without imposing." FM