Major EU food manufacturers continue to offer low- or no fat products as a consumer option alongside goods higher in fat, while the trend towards healthier food launches along these lines has remained flat or even declined in some states.
So says David Jago, director of innovation and insight at market research firm Mintel, in FoodNavigator.com’s final special edition news article on lower fat foods, where he adds that cost issues and reformulation fears continue to outweigh the corporate social responsibility benefits that slashing ‘bad’ trans or saturated fats can bring.
Has the market reached tipping point?
2005-2011 statistics from Mintel’s Global New Product Database show that the number of product launches with associated low/no/reduced fat is relatively static. Across all food categories in the UK, Italy, France, Germany and Spain there were 1824 launches (2005), 1901 (2006), 2079 (2007), 1793 (2008), 1799 (2009), 1804 (2010) and 292 to date in 2011.
Despite this underwhelming trend, does Jago believe we are reaching a tipping point, with producers seeing it as worthwhile to reformulate foods to offer (potentially more expensive) healthier alternatives, say sunflower- rather than palm oil in biscuits?
“No, probably not yet, " said Jago. "Major food manufacturers and retailers still see a "responsibility" to offer reduced fat alternatives alongside their existing lines. These may not be big volume sellers, but they are part of the portfolio.”
Given this two-tier consumer market, does this mean that pricier ‘healthy’ offerings are pitched against ‘bad for you’ budget products?
“In many cases it would appear that increased cost of ingredients/formulation is absorbed (as reduced margin), rather than passed on to the consumer as a higher priced alternative, but they do it because the volumes are (relatively) low and because of the corporate responsibility issue,” said Jago.
Perceived importance changes across EU
Of course, the perceived importance of fat reduction differs across EU states, and Mintel statistics for the last 3 years show that Germany (1666 launches between January 2008 and December 2010), the UK (1612), France (793) and Italy (792) saw the most new products sold with an associated reduced fat or fat-free claim.
During that period, Jago added, only the UK had seen a percentage increase in such introductions across all food categories, reflecting the perhaps surprising fact that: “Most countries, when looked at across all categories, have seen the relative incidence of low/no fat claims declining over time, not growing, which probably reflects the relative success (or lack of) of low/no fat products in the mainstream, as well as ongoing shift among consumers towards ‘more balanced’ nutrition.”
Category expectations differ
According to Mintel, the five top categories where low/no fat launches go in the five countries mentioned above are: dairy (629 launches in 2010) meat products (214, with egg and fish included), meals (170) snacks and bakery (253). Jago added that the percentage of new products had hardly changed over the past few years, while innovation was rare given fairly ‘standard’ positioning.
It is also important to understand different expectations regarding specific food groups, Jago said, where in dairy, for example, low/no fat yoghurt and milk are accepted as a norm in many markets (over 20% of all new dairy products make a low/no fat claim). He compares this to the bakery segment, where only 3% of new launches are made on this basis.
Price and reformulation fears
Cost was a major factor preventing an upsurge in low/no fat launches, Jago said, but he also emphasised fears amongst producers of adverse product quality when trans or saturated fat levels were reduced or cut out:
“There are significant problems with taste/texture, and perceived taste/texture, so it's not easy to formulate a lower fat product that has all the same taste, texture and mouth-feel as a ‘regular’ product.
“Equally important is the fact that consumers are likely to perceive a lower fat option as being in some way inferior in terms of taste or texture. Some consumers, those who are really motivated by a low fat diet, will be prepared to make that sacrifice, but the majority of "mainstream" consumers will not.”
To counteract this factor, Jago added that most low- fat, calorie, sugar and sodium formulations place emphasis ‘all the taste’ of standard products on packaging, or use rich, indulgent flavours.