The battle of the bulge looks set to continue. As the government publishes the details of its Responsibility Deal for food and the "pledges" expected from manufacturers and retailers to improve the nutritional health of a UK population getting increasingly fatter, food and drink manufacturers will remain the focus of much attention.
Reformulation of products to reduce levels of fats, sugars and salt in products will remain centre stage in public health campaigns to attack the obesity epidemic. Whether this will be enough to prevent us stuffing our faces with energy-dense foods and taking too little exercise to burn off the calories, remains to be seen. And getting vulnerable groups to eat more fruit, vegetables and fibre won't be easy.
But, given that the healthy eating market in the UK is now worth around £8bn and growing according to Food and Drink Federation (FDF) food safety and science director Barbara Gallani this category represents a big opportunity as well as a potential threat to some traditional products. "So, it's worth continuing to invest to meet consumer demands," said Gallani.
According to Dr Judith Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation, the most recent data shows that a staggering 60% of adults in the UK are overweight, while one in four is obese. Perhaps even more worrying, one-third of children between two and 15 years of age are overweight and half are obese. Encouragingly, while total intake of fat by individuals was falling, reported Buttriss, there were still concerns about saturated fat, extraneous (added) sugar and salt intakes. "We are still well adrift of the 6g/day target," she said. Average salt intake is around 8.6g/day.
The achievements so far in reducing, for example, average adult salt consumption from 9.5g/day in 2000/2001 to 8.6g/day in 2008 have been the result of a number of activities, remarked Buttriss: "It was a combination of factors that helped drive these things."
It emerged from Food Manufacture's Reformulation conference, held in London last month, that the Food Responsibility Deal will be looking for some firm and challenging 'pledges' from manufacturers. Initially these will involve reducing levels of salt and trans-fats in food, while introducing calorie labelling for food and drink consumed out of home. Since the industry is already ahead of the game on trans-fats, these shouldn't pose too many problems. But the targets for salt look far more challenging.
From comments made by one informed source at the Reformulation conference (sponsored by global provider of laboratory testing, advisory and assurance services, Exova) the salt reduction targets will be based on the 2012 targets proposed by the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) before its nutritional responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Health (DoH) last October.
However, the source also said that because health secretary Andrew Lansley feared attacks from health lobby groups about going soft on the food industry, the salt targets would be re-engineered to ensure the range spread within different categories was more tightly controlled than under the FSA's proposals.
Going forward, any public health campaigns are likely to make use of the evidence accruing from data derived from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS). This is now managed by the DoH, which will use it to monitor changes to diets. "We will promote and enable people to adopt a healthier diet," said Dr Clair Bayton, now deputy director for nutrition science and delivery at the DoH, following her transfer, with other members of the FSA's nutrition team.
The NDNS survey is due to report again in June 2011 and will be followed by yearly updates in the subsequent two years. The information from the NDNS survey to date points to worrying deficiencies in essential micronutrient intakes of individuals in several potentially vulnerable groups, such as young and pregnant women. Regarding vitamin and mineral intakes, Buttriss said: "The picture is not totally rosy in the UK at the moment."
Bayton also announced that the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which previously advised ministers, would report directly to the DoH. SACN would focus attention on areas of concern, such as iron and energy intake levels, carbohydrates and vitamin D.
What emerged quite clearly from the presentations at the Reformulation conference was that big branded manufacturers, such as Kellogg, Heinz and United Biscuits have been reducing levels of salt, sugar and fat over a number of years.
This has often been by 'stealth' to carry consumers along with the firms and to avoid creating an impression that the quality of reformulated products had diminished.
Although the stealthy approach has been the order of the day for many products, where branded suppliers can offer choice, they have made a virtue of positively promoting healthier product launches. But since these manufacturers readily admit that, for some people, these products are palatably unacceptable and a step too far, they are likely to remain niche until a wholesale change in consumer tastes can be achieved.
While most manufacturers are reluctant to divulge the costs they have had to absorb often quite large for sometimes complex changes United Biscuits has been more open in its three-year £6M reformulation journey to reduce levels of saturated fat in its McVitie's plain digestive biscuits by 75%, said specialist fats consultant Geoff Talbot. Heinz's nutritionist Dr Tristan Robinson also reported that the company had invested around £5M overall in developing the reduced sugar and salt version of its baked beans. Such large sums are likely to present an insurmountable barrier to many smaller and own-label firms, however.
Plant bakers have clearly found some of the technical challenges of reducing salt in bread quite hard to overcome. Problems range from increased 'stickiness' of dough and structure collapse in bread to rising acrylamide levels in some biscuits. These are issues that Exova, which has been working with some big names in this area, can attest to. "The bakery industry needs [salt reduction] targets that are rational and achievable," said Eric Price, food and trading law adviser for Exova.
There are safety concerns for processed meat products as salt reduction causes water activity to rise, which encourages pathogen growth. Some meat and poultry processors argue that they would not be able to reduce salt levels much further without compromising shelf-life and consumer taste acceptability.
Given that most nutritionists accept that reducing the energy density of foods is the best reformulation way to reduce obesity, portion sizes have become an issue. Good quality information on labels is also important in allowing consumers to make informed choices, as is the provision of good nutritional and cooking education in schools. But the proof will be in translating all these measures into changes in purchasing and consumption behaviour a much bigger can of worms!
There is increasing acceptance that some indulgent products are never going to be 'healthy' and therefore moderation in their consumption is the real answer rather than changing their formulation out of all existence. And then there are the problems of regulatory constraints imposed by EU compositional standards on, for example, chocolate and ice cream. These prevent the reduction of some ingredients below certain levels. "These concerns are creating a great deal of uncertainty for industry," reported Gallani.
However, the recent trend by some confectioners to reduce the size of their count lines by stealth could equally be a desire to counteract the flak some received in the press for their 'supersized' bars as a desire to cut their costs against rising ingredients costs.
According to figures from market research firm Kantar Worldpanel, presented by speakers at the conference, the labelling of products was helping to drive the consumption of healthier reformulated products, particularly in own-label ready meals and sandwiches. However, consumption of foods high in unhealthy trans-fatty acids were still worryingly high among those in lower socio-economic groups, warned Buttriss.
She also noted that while promotions helped drive sales of healthier products, it was only where everyday low pricing schemes were the norm that healthier purchasing behaviours were sustained.
Sustainable diet risk
With the push for more 'sustainable diets', she cautioned against the unintended consequences of arguing for cutting out meat and dairy products. This could pose a risk for vulnerable groups who are deficient in certain essential nutrients in these types of food. "It is important that the impact of these developments on nutrients is considered," she warned.
Given the micronutrient deficiencies that exist in many people's diets, there is a case for more food fortification, argued FDF's Gallani.
It is something that cereal companies such as Kellogg have long argued for and responded to most recently by the launch of Corn Flakes now fortified with vitamin D, as well as other essential micronutrients.
Underpinning everything surrounding reformulation is the fact that healthy foods must taste good too. It is an issue that both Heinz and Kellogg have wrestled with over the years. "The challenge for us as manufacturers is ensuring taste goes hand in hand with [health]," said Sara Collie, nutrition business partner with Kellogg. "We spend a lot of money to ensure the products taste no different."
For branded and own-label manufacturers the reformulation band wagon is unlikely to stop. From lessons learned, the industry hopes a more joined-up approach will be adopted by legislators in driving healthier food choices.
As Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, assistant director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium, remarked: "We will continue to reformulate in a more holistic manner we will work in the framework of the Responsibility Deal on Public Health." FM