Pressure on food firms to get healthier to grow

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

There is mounting pressure on food and drink manufacturers to come up with healthier products
There is mounting pressure on food and drink manufacturers to come up with healthier products

Related tags: Sugar, Coca-cola

Pressure on food manufacturers to come up with healthier recipes has never been stronger, says Paul Gander

Key Points

In public discourse at least, the word ‘reformulation’ doesn’t get much of an airing unlike, for example, ‘sustainability’. Yet, the majority of reformulation can be seen as being just that: a specific, targeted form of public health sustainability.

As chair of the food network within the Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD), Susan Jebb sees reformulation happening, even where it is not shouted about.

She says: “I think we’re seeing greater attention being paid to reformulation than previously, and across a range of nutrients; not just salt as in the pre-Responsibility Deal days. But it’s clear that there is still plenty of scope for removing further saturated fat, sugar and salt from many products.”

Clear message (Return to top)

Jebb, who is also professor of diet and population health at Oxford University’s Primary Health Care Services department, adds: “Within every category, there’s a spread in the composition of foods, and I’d like to see ‘the rest’ as good as the best.”

But by ‘the rest’ she appears to mean ‘other brands’ rather than ‘other variants’. Taking the example of sugar in carbonated soft drinks, she says: “There’s now a choice within the market of low-, mid- and full-sugar options. I think companies need to be clear in their labelling to consumers about these differences, and to ensure that their marketing favours the low-sugar options. This does not deny committed full-sugar consumers from accessing these products, but it does not actively encourage or incentivise people to do so.”

As part of its calorie reduction pledge over the past year-and-a-half, PHRD signatory Coca-Cola Great Britain (GB) has made several changes. The company already had calorie-free Diet Coke and Coke Zero products on the market, and in April 2014 claimed that 42% of the cola it sold in the UK was sugar-free and zero-calorie.

But, last summer saw the UK business’s biggest launch in recent history with the introduction of Coca-Cola Life, which uses the plant-derived sweetener stevia to achieve a 37% reduction in sugar.

Why, when the mainstream Sprite product had been reformulated in the same way little over a year earlier, did Coca-Cola not seize the opportunity to make the same bold move with its flagship product?

Dietician Carrie Ruxton, who has collaborated with Coca-Cola in the UK, dismisses the idea as uncommercial. Older consumers may recall the company’s ill-conceived attempt to reformulate with ‘New Coke’ in 1985, an episode which appears to be burnt into Coke’s corporate memory. “You may be a market leader, but it’s still messing with an iconic product,”​ she says.

Nonetheless, she is relieved that her own son recently made the switch from ‘red’ Coke to Coca-Cola Life.

As Ruxton points out, when stevia was introduced, product developers enthused both about its ‘natural source’ and the lack of that slightly cloying mouthfeel experienced with some other sweeteners. But, even though the initial stevia ‘hit’ is quite sugar-like, the bitter aftertaste is not.

“On the other hand, if you blend stevia with sugar, as Coca-Cola has done, you get a much better flavour profile,”​ she says. “We were never told this at the outset.”

Granola (Return to top)

In Europe, the challenges of incorporating stevia are not just to do with flavour, as granola manufacturer The Good Carb Food Company discovered. Its Lizi’s range of granolas already had a low-sugar content (9%) compared with an average 19% across the UK granola category. Some granolas are almost 30% sugar, says founder Mick Shaw.

But, faced with the recent reaction against sugar (and more particularly fructose, which Lizi’s uses in the form of lower-glycaemic-index agave syrup), the company set out to produce a variant with even less than 9% sugar. “When stevia came along, I got quite excited,”​ says Shaw. “We worked for 18 months trying to develop a product with stevia, which actually worked.”

His team had not factored in “some incredibly tight”​ EU regulations concerning the use of stevia in a breakfast cereal, he explains. As well as 15% more fibre and 20% more bran, any stevia-containing variant is obliged to contain no added sugar. So Shaw was unable to run with his original intention of using black treacle to mask the stevia.

Good Carb’s second attempt used oligofructose as the fibre-enhancer. By its own calculations, this should have contained 3% or 4% sugars from natural sources. But tests showed the actual figure was 9%. “It seems that, in the absence of other sugars, oligofructose breaks down into its own constituent sugars,”​ says Shaw. He speculates that heat processing may have played its part.

Finally, the company looked at isomalto-oligosaccharides. But, with this ingredient, Shaw says he ran into trouble with the glycaemic index, as it broke down into sugars in the body.

In the end, the decision was taken to bake a low-sugar (4%) granola. “It’s not sweet, but then a lot of people seem happy with that,” ​says Shaw. “It’s interesting from a marketing point of view. We know there’s demand for lower-sugar cereals. Up to now, I think consumers have been short-changed.”

More label reading (Return to top)

There are other indications that consumers are at least reading labels, Emma Watson, head of group marketing at own-label producer Bakkavor says: “Our own consumer research carried out this year showed that three-quarters of consumers consider healthiness important when purchasing food, with fat and sugar content being the top two levels that consumers look for on-pack.”

Bakkavor points out that, as the Lizi’s team discovered, regulations can further complicate the process. So, for example, to make a ‘reduced fat’ claim, fat content must be 30% below the benchmark level.

Meanwhile, the pitfalls of balancing fat, sugar, salt and overall calorie content, and the risks of compensating for cuts in one component with increases in another, are better understood. “We test our recipes using nutritional calculation tools to check the effects of any change before we move to the trial phase,”​ she says.

With products designed to be indulgent the challenges can be particularly acute. “By reducing the butterfat content of the cream in our cream cakes, we have been able to remove 400t of fat and 200t of saturated fat from the market over the past 12 months,”​ says Watson. “We’ve been able to achieve this without affecting the product’s taste.”

Reasons to grow (Return to top)

There are plenty of reasons why ‘healthy’ reformulation should grow rather than diminish in importance. But, according to Ruxton, this will not necessarily be in the form of overt reformulation. “If you have a label announcing reduced-fat, sugar or salt, consumers will often assume this is going to taste worse than the original,”​ she said, while creating a variant that costs more was even worse, she added.

She cites PepsiCo’s introduction of Sunseed sunflower seed oil in its snacks as a good example of reformulation communicated as positive innovation ‘healthier’ in a general sense.

With all of this in mind, it is hardly surprising that Jebb, with her PHRD role, believes that any new government formed next year will want to continue building voluntary agreements with industry. Should Labour be given the chance, it will be interesting to see whether Andy Burnham's suggestion of mandatory sugar, fat and salt limits in children’s foods is ever followed through.

Even Jebb admits that voluntary deals will not be enough. In the past, she has said that higher sales taxes for sugary soft drinks would be helpful. She also calls for selective use of “marketing restrictions”.

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