The food industry is working hard to ward off the threat of tighter regulation and taxation by reducing the salt, fat and sugar content of products. Story by Lynda Searby.
Six months have passed since Denmark introduced its so-called 'sat fat tax', and although it's too soon to tell whether the tax is proving effective, the country's food manufacturers are feeling the effects.
Danish dairy giant Arla Foods claims that in the fourth quarter of 2011 (three months after the saturated fat tax was introduced), it saw a 5% decline in sales across taxed products, which could partly (but not exclusively) be attributed to the fat tax.
"This decline isn't exclusively due to the new tax, since we had a general decline in consumption in that same period, which could be explained by consumers being in a 'discount savings' mode due to the financial crisis," said Theis Brøgger, chief press officer at Arla Foods.
He added that another consequence of the new tax was that consumers were starting to shop for dairy products in countries such as Germany and Sweden, to avoid the tax.
"We have already seen signs of border shopping increasing within the dairy product segment," said Brøgger.
The dairy industry is one of the sectors hardest hit by the fat tax. The savoury snacks industry, whose products have also historically contained high levels of saturated fat, seems to have escaped unscathed.
"As we expected, the tax has had no visible effect on the category," said Peter Frank Andersen, sales director of KiMs. "We have yet to see if any long-term effects will occur."
He admits it helped that KiMs had already planned to shift the last of its palm-oil-fried snacks to sunflower oil before the tax arrived.
Denmark isn't the only European country using taxes to try to deter people from consuming 'unhealthy' food and drink products. Since last September, Hungarians have had to pay a 10 forint tax on foods with a high fat, sugar and salt content, as well as 10% more tax on soft drinks and alcohol. And since January, the French government has been taxing sugary drinks.
However, trade association FoodDrinkEurope is urging other European governments to exercise great caution vis-à-vis additional, discriminatory taxation on food and drink products.
"Taxes such as the Danish saturated fat tax threaten to have a negative impact on the competitiveness of Europe's food and drink industry, in addition to hampering the free movement of food and drink products within the single market," said the association's director of communications, Lisa McCooey. "Scientific research shows that taxation isn't an effective tool to address consumer behaviour and should not be used to promote healthy diets."
Taxes are also a kick in the teeth for those food manufacturers who have been taking a proactive approach to the obesity issue through reformulation.
Arla Foods, for example, had long been working to reduce saturated fat from mainstream dairy products before the tax came into force.
"Over the past 10 years, we have helped Danish consumers move towards more healthy products, and this effort will continue regardless of political taxes," said Brøgger.
Nestlé says it is, and always has been, committed to product improvement in order to offer consumers healthier and tastier choices. The company's head of R&D communications, Hilary Green, said that in 2011, 5,066 products were 'renovated' (resulting in nutritional improvement).
"Of the products renovated last year, 1,215 now contain less sodium, sugars, trans fatty acids, total fat or artificial colours, and 3,851 bring more essential nutrients or nutritious ingredients to consumers, such as vitamins, probiotics, prebiotics, vegetables and many more," she said.
Interestingly, the company's policy to monitor and reduce levels of saturated fats doesn't cover all saturated fats – only those with a carbon chain length from 12 to 24 atoms.
"Collectively, these are the ones that have been consistently associated with adverse health effects and also make the largest contribution to the total saturated fat content of foods," said Green. "There is no evidence that all saturated fats are detrimental to human health."
The company has taken a tougher line on trans fatty acids, committing to reduce trans fatty acids in prepared foods so that in a normal consumption pattern, trans fatty acid intake wouldn't exceed 3% of the total fat in foods, or 1% of the daily total energy intake as recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Green said priority was given to products that are consumed by children and that contain higher levels of trans fatty acids such as soups, snacks, pizzas, ready meals and some confectionery items.
Milk fat, however, is exempted from the policy, as trans fatty acids occur naturally in milk fat, and Green said it was controversial whether they have the same effects as trans fatty acids from vegetable oils.
In terms of sugar reduction, Green reported that between 2000 and 2010, Nestlé reduced the overall sugar content of its products by 34%: "In 2007, we accelerated our efforts in sugar reduction by introducing a mandatory policy for further reductions in the level of sugar, especially in products that make a significant contribution to consumers' total dietary sugar intake. This includes complete meals, snacks and drinks, as well as products intended primarily for children, such as breakfast cereals."
She said Nestlé made 'limited use' of sweeteners to reduce sugar and provide a sweet taste, for example in beverages.
Nestlé first introduced a policy to significantly reduce the salt content of its products in 2005. By the end of 2007, the company had reduced the level of salt in higher-salt products by 10%, and by the end of 2010, had made further reductions to bring the salt level down to 75% of the amount in original recipes.
Priority for salt reduction is given to products that make up a large part of the daily diet, such as ready meals, soups and snacks.
Reducing saturated fat
Another major food manufacturer that has done much in the way of reformulation in recent years is United Biscuits.
"Our health strategy is focused on reducing salt, saturated fat and the removal of artificial colours and flavours in our products," said Nick Stuart, commercial manager at UBUK. "This runs alongside the business' continuous development of healthier new products in response to the growing consumer demand for healthier products."
Stuart said the company's main focus was on reducing the saturated fat content of its products by replacing saturated fat with a polyunsaturated fat such as sunflower oil.
In this way, between 2005 and 2011, UB reduced the average saturated fat content of its snacks from 14% to 4%.
Particular highlights during 2011 included a 30% saturated fat reduction for McCoy's crisps, slashing the saturated fat content of Twiglets by 60% to 1.6g per 100g, and reformulating Fruit Bakes to provide one portion of fruit, while remaining under 131 calories.
Development of healthier new products is also a focus for UB, and in June, a new 'healthier' chocolate biscuit slice range will launch in the UK under the company's Go Ahead! brand. Chocolate Thins contain 73kcal and are positioned as 'tasty, indulgent chocolate snacks consumers can feel good about eating'.
In terms of sodium reduction, Nick Stuart said UB had surpassed the commitment it made to the UK Department of Health by achieving a 23% sodium reduction across its biscuits and cakes portfolio, and 18% across its crisps and snacks brands.
"This has been achieved gradually to ensure consumers' tastes can adapt over time," he said. "This phased approach has enabled us to achieve substantial reductions in some of our most popular brands."
Reducing sugar content
The multinationals may be leading the way on reformulation, but there's also evidence that some small- and medium-sized players are getting the health message too.
Erlenbacher, a German-based supplier of frozen desserts to the retail and food service trade, has launched a new range of desserts with 30% less sugar than its standard products.
It says the new desserts are suitable for diabetics as well as consumers 'who may not have such a sweet tooth or those wanting some guilt-free indulgence', and says no sweeteners have been used to achieve the reductions.
The range includes reduced sugar versions of existing products such as Brownies and Apple & Almond Slices, as well as three new 28cm round cakes: Cherry & Butter Crumble Cake, Cheese & Tangerine Cake and Multi-Fruit Cake.
The reformulation activity of United Biscuits, Nestlé and other food manufacturers will hopefully earn the industry brownie points when the Commission evaluates the effectiveness of the Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, a process that's expected to be completed by 2013.
However, there is a danger that overzealous reformulation could result in consumers rejecting products altogether, or in the case of salt, simply adding their own at home.
A recent study carried out by scientists at the Centres des Sciences du Goût et de l'Alimentation (CSGA) in France found that the salt content of products had a significant influence on the quantities consumed by children. In other words, the more salt present in food, the more children will consume of that food. By contrast, changing the fat or sugar content of foods didn't affect consumption levels.
What this study serves to demonstrate is that manufacturers take a massive risk every time they reformulate a product. But then again, ceasing to continue reformulating carries an even greater risk, that of regulators and governments imposing food taxes, advertising bans and other draconian measures.
Lynda Searby is a freelance writer specialising in the food & beverage industry.
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This article was first published
in Food & Beverage International.