Food manufacturers are taking their sweet time

Another week goes by and another alarming statistic is released in the media highlighting the UK’s obesity time bomb. This time, it was reported in The Guardian newspaper that the NHS spends more on obesity-related healthcare than on the police, fire service, prisons and criminal justice system combined. And just to underline this shocking statement, the paper also reported that Diabetes 2 now swallows up almost one 10th of the annual NHS budget. For some time now, the public’s high consumption of sugar has been held primarily responsible for these unhealthy stats and sugar has become enemy numero uno.  By implication, you would think that the manufacturers of high sugar products would naturally be feeling a bit shifty these days and probably be making some pretty swift changes to the ingredients. After all, with the threat of a sugar tax looming, the spotlight shining on the makers of confectionary and junk food must be pretty intense. Surely they must be working really hard on some healthy reformulations to reduce the amount of sugar in their products, right?

Well, not exactly and their inaction finally seems to be attracting some criticism from the public. In fact, many manufacturers are very busy delaying the inevitable rejig of their ingredients by using a bit of sleight of hand to make their products appear healthier without reducing any sugar. One way they are doing this is to reduce the number of calories in their products by simply reducing the size of their single serving portions. In other words, the shrunken products have less calories and are magically ‘healthier’ even though the ingredients and the proportion of sugar they contain haven’t changed. Cadbury’s, Mars and Nestle were the first to do this and have quietly shrunk the sizes of their Dairy Milk, Twix and Quality Street chocolates among others.

But Unilever decided to take a different approach and came clean in the press recently. They announced that in order to keep their products to under 250 kcal, they have reduced the sizes of their Cornetto, Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s ice creams and discontinued ice cream favourites such as Magnum Infinity Chocolate & Caramel. Their spin on this decision is that they are doing it all in a bid ‘to help consumers make healthier choices’. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well with consumers who have once again demonstrated that the expression, There is no such thing as bad publicity, is not always true. The main criticism is that the reduction in ice cream size does not equate to any reduction in price and only helps Unilever make a healthier profit. Besides, how will it really help consumers make healthier choices if the only thing that has changed is the size of the ice cream? Like some ice cream canapes, won’t people just eat more of them?

However, it is not just the amount of sugar in some of these products that has put manufacturers under increasing scrutiny from consumers but the way in which they are marketed to us. An awareness of the way in which such foods are marketed to children, in particular, has grown. For example, Heinz was first to come under a healthy radar last September when a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) forced it to stop advertising their Organic Biscotti as an ‘ideal healthy snack for babies 7+ months old’. They may have been made in Italy with ‘baby grade ingredients and with iron for healthy brain development’ but it didn’t quite distract from the fact that they contain over 4g sugar per portion of biscotti and were sold in flavours such as chocolate. Even if parents buy into an image of Italian bambinos lolling around cafes all day dipping high sugar biscotti into their bambinoccinos, the fact that a baby food manufacturer is encouraging babies to eat biscuits seems so wrong. Unfortunately, the ASA didn’t put Heinz off and rather than reduce any of the sugar in their biscotti they simply stopped labelling it as a snack. Instead, the biscotti are now advertised as the ‘handy, tasty biscuit to have either at home or on the go for little hands to grip’.

Next in the firing line of unhealthy advertising was Nestle’s Nesquik bunny when the ASA upheld a complaint made by the Children’s Food Campaign last December. The ASA ruled that Nesquik could no longer make the claim in their strapline that their hot chocolate drink made a ‘great start to the day’ as each serving contained more than 20g sugar. The ASA found the strapline, that was also used on fresh milk labels, encouraged poor nutritional habits in children and dismissed Nestle’s description of the Nesquik bunny as being a ‘physically active, energetic character who could promote a healthy lifestyle’. But rather than reformulating their product they simply stopped using the strapline. Perhaps because Nesquik is also sold as a chocolate cereal and milkshake drink, they think that they have breakfast covered.

Now a recent ruling made in Brussels with a bit more bite to it may finally force some manufacturers to stop packing their products with sugar. Members of European Parliament (MEPs) have voted against the draft delegated act on Food for Specific Groups that would have allowed cereal-based baby foods to contain up to 30% sugar. The proposed act had been drafted over two years of negotiations but clearly, an increasing impatience with the reluctance of manufacturers to reformulate their products has grown. The obesity tide has truly changed and has brought with it an urgency for governments to face this public health issue. The MEPs now advocate reducing the amount of sugar in products to match the recommendations set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The act will now go back to the drawing board of the European Commission to be reconsidered and hopefully, it will return in a much healthier state.

In another show of the endorsement of the WHO recommendations, a resolution was also adopted calling for clearer labelling and marketing of baby foods. The MEPs said that processed baby foods should not be marketed or labelled in any way that undermines exclusive breastfeeding recommendations. In addition, manufacturers must make clear that their products are not appropriate for babies under 6 mths of age. This is a bold strike against manufacturers who had previously been allowed to target their products at babies 4mths+.

But will manufacturers interpret these rulings in Brussels as a clear sign showing that consumers and governments have finally, had enough? It is too early to see how the numerous manufacturers of baby food will respond to the impending legislation and shrinking number of babies they can target and whether this will make any impact on the amount of sugar used in the other foods they produce for a wider age range. You have to hope that any legislation that limits the amount of sugar allowed in foods will ring some internal alarm bells in the manufacturers of confectionary and junk food.

I suspect that the majority of manufacturers of high sugar products will continue to respond to any impending regulations quite literally with the sticking plaster of re-labelling. Ultimately, it will come down to whether manufacturers have the foresight to see a financial benefit in reformulating their products to make them healthier before they are forced to. But at least things seem to be moving in the right direction and it may be just a matter of time before increased consumer scrutiny and legislation make it too difficult for manufacturers to make a healthy profit from sugar-loaded products. I have to be hopeful that the bunny’s days are numbered…

Although it would be tempting to make something with a rabbit theme this week, I have instead opted for a favourite blueberry scone recipe for a healthier breakfast than what that bunny is advertising. These Blueberry and ricotta scones are very easy to make and take minutes to stir up. They are also great as an after-school snack.

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