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Pragmatic policies: 'Quiet' reformulation is the most promising route to healthier food intakes

By Nathan Gray+

30-Apr-2014
Last updated on 30-Apr-2014 at 17:21 GMT

Pragmatic policies: 'Quiet' reformulation is the most promising route to healthier food intakes

While it may be clear that people should probably cut down on their intakes of salt, sugar, and fat, the best way to achieve this has always caused a bit of a headache. Is quiet reformulation the most pragmatic solution?

One thing that is clear to most is that higher than recommended intakes of sugar, fat, salt and calories has led to a rapid increase in obesity rates, and an 'epidemic' of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

The root cause of this overconsumption has long been said to be due to people consuming too much of the 'wrong foods' - with dieticians and public health officials arguing that education and an increased availability of foods that are naturally healthier is the best way to reduce intakes.

In reality though, this tried and tested method does not, and will not work, according to food policy expert Professor Jack Winkler.

"It's not that helping people to chose a healthier mix of foods is wrong. It isn't wrong,  it's great," Winker told FoodNavigator. "The point is that we have been doing that for 30 years, and it hasn't worked."

The now retired professor cited evidence three large-scale surveys of nutrition policy in over 150 developed and underdeveloped countries - warning that 'the story is the same everywhere.'

"We always tried information campaigns direct to the consumers. And the results are always the same, they don't work."

"How many decades do we have to go on failing before we change?"

Pragmatic policies

Taking a pragmatic view, Winkler suggests that the traditional policy instruments of public health - including public awareness campaigns and efforts to change lifestyle behaviours - have proved to be ineffective in this area. 

"One way or another, they either do not work or will not be adopted," he said. "Because of this, I have been driven from a pragmatic point of view, to say that the reformulation of popular foods is the most promising route."

"Rather than trying to change people, we need to look at changing foods instead."

While many may agree, in general, with this stance, Winkler goes one step further by suggesting that companies and policy makers need to understand how consumers react to alterations in their favourite foods, and work accordingly.

He noted that when it comes to reformulation, there are two very different. Firstly there is the 'rapid and ostentatious' move to lower levels, accompanied by big public awareness. However, these moves run the risk of backlash, he said.

Secondly, manufacturers can reformulate 'quietly,  in a multitude of ways, lowering different levels in different products, without 'making a song and dance about it'.

"Those that follow the second strategy don't get as much credit for it, but they also don't get hung by consumers either," he said - suggesting that there needs to be a bit more 'compassion' for food manufacturers who are somewhat caught in a no-win situation.

"If they reformulate and tell everybody about it, that affects sales. But if they reformulate and don't tell, then nobody knows about it."

The expert also noted that one, perhaps forgotten, slogan in nutrition - 'foods which are not eaten provide no benefit' - must be remembered in the context of reformulation efforts. He warned that any reformulation effort that turns consumers away from your product is not only bad for your business but could bad for public health.

"If your reformulated healthier food now alienates consumers and means they do not buy it then any assumed public health gain just is not realised," he warned.

"That's a truth about nutrition that many in public health seem to have forgotten."

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