Sugar campaigner: Most expensive part of reformulation is relabeling

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Reformulation, reduced portion sizes and naturally-low alternatives, which way should we turn on the healthy reduction road?
Reformulation, reduced portion sizes and naturally-low alternatives, which way should we turn on the healthy reduction road?

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Arguments that reducing salt, sugar or fat in foods is too difficult and costly are rubbish, it just needs to be done slowly, according to Action on Sugar front man.

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and campaigner for the lobby group Action on Sugar, told us that it was simply not true that new product development (NPD) was too expensive. “Just take some sugar out,”​ he said. “The most expensive part of the process is changing the labels.”

Meanwhile Dr Carrie Ruxton said she didn’t think reformulation held the answers, instead consumers should learn to eat less of treat foods, and food firms and retailers should stop incentivising over consumption.

Reformulation frustration

Dr Ruxton said she was frustrated with the conversation around reformulation, which often entailed finger pointing and simplified assertions. “There are always people hounding the industry. I’d like to know if any of them have ever tried reformulating anything,”​ she told FoodNavigator.  

She said this process was a delicate balance between keeping costs down, maintaining the clean labels that consumers look for and making genuine savings – since she said often ingredient swaps result in products with much the same calorie counts.

“I don’t think NPD offers the answers – we all know it increases costs,”​ she said.

Professor MacGregor, however, said: “The food industry is pretending there’s a problem when there isn’t.”

He said that there had been a history of food firms presenting healthy reformulation as near impossible, only to find later this was not the case. He said ultimately there was “no problem”​ in reducing salt, sugar and fat, it was simply a case of reluctance on the part of the industry. He said that this could be done, but that it had to be done slowly to allow taste receptions time to change. 

He added that some firms see this as an opportunity, and that it was possible to echo the “great success story”​ already seen in salt reduction with sugar.  

Firms reformulating have said sugar plays an important bulking role in food products that can be difficult to mimic with the sweetener replacements available, while fat levels dictate whether a product can be called chocolate in Europe​.

At the end of last year, Mars said it had exhausted reformulation efforts​ to meet UK Responsibility Deal targets, and was now left with the sole option of reducing portion sizes. The price stayed the same for these smaller bars, our sister site ConfectioneryNews reported.

What’s the alternative?

Ruxton said that while in an ideal world everyone would eat less chocolate and cakes and more vegetables and fruit, putting forward ‘replacement’ foods already naturally low in sugars, fat or salt could also prove problematic.

“The difficulty is – if you apply it to consumer choice – what do you swap to?”​ She said that if consumers were to, for example, switch from chocolate to raisons, they may well find that they are reducing energy density but consuming similar amounts of sugar.

“We may disprove of these foods, but sometimes they contain the same levels as alternatives,”​ she said.

Instead she said that the industry could do more to reduce portion sizes and consumers should stop seeing treats as a staple part of their diets.   

Behavioural economist Dr Nick Southgate said this could be a case of what is called 'question substitution'.

“In essence, when we're faced with a hard question (in this case how to eat less, or eliminate a consumption occasion altogether) we prefer the easier question (in this case, what should I eat?),”​ he said.

He suggested that we may find it easier to make decisions about the quality of our food than about the quantity.  

"It's another question whether its true that as long as you don't eat too much you can pretty much eat what you like, but it is certainly true that collectively food marketing encourages us in our unhelpful ‘question substitution’ from quantity to quality. One would speculate this is because it is easier to sell more food for less money (value for money) than it is to sell less food for more money (premium),”​ he told us. 

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