In any case, all experts told FoodNavigator that such unobtrusive changes--where consumers often do not realise the recipe has been altered--have worked in the past for other sin foods such as salt.
The suggestions came with the UK’s Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) new sugar reformulation guide, launched last week, highlighting existing regulations covering sugar and reviewing various substitutes.
An FDF spokesperson stressed that reformulation is not a one-size-fits-all event, and that different strategies will be needed for different products.
“Past experience has taught us that for some products a series of small reduction over a long time is the best way to approach to reformulation, as consumers are more likely to accept and benefit from the changes,” the spokesperson told us.
“Clear, on-pack nutrition labelling enables consumers to understand these changes.”
Gradual reformulation is potentially an effective strategy, Professor Jack Winkler of London Metropolitan University, Steve Osborn, commercial director for the Aurora Ceres Partnership, and Jenny Rosborough, campaign manager for Action on Sugar, agreed.
It gives consumers the opportunity to adjust to taste changes, meaning they are less likely to resist, Rosborough said.
“This approach worked successfully with salt reduction in the UK. Reformulation was gradual and unobtrusive to allow the population’s taste preferences to adapt as the amount of salt in products was reduced,” she said.
The stealth strategy can also expose unnecessary amounts of ingredients, Osborn said.
However, due to the multifunctional nature of sugar, identifying surplus amounts of sugar may not be so simple and therefore stealth reformulation may not be a workable strategy in sugar’s case.
Beside adding sweetness, it is used for colour, providing bulk and texture, and improving shelf-life.
“As it plays a structural role, it is likely to need replacing with a non-nutritive alternative, requiring a label change - so no so stealthy after all,” Osborn said. “That said where it is used to excess it should be removed.”
Professor Tom Sanders, head of diabetes and nutritional sciences division, King's College London, was more sceptical of stealthy sugar reduction in solid foods, noting it is more difficult because of sugar’s other mechanisms.
“This has worked for fat reformulation (…) However for sugar it is more difficult because of the functional characteristics of sugar in solid foods,” he said, though added: “Replacing sugar in drinks is relatively easy and this option has been available for decades.”
Some experts also warn that consumers may not warm to the idea of product reformulation without their knowledge.
Professor Sanders said consumers may not like the idea of the food industry “meddling with natural foods, (for instance) reformulating milk products such as yoghurt.”
Professor Winkler countered that these changes need not be widely advertised, since this could simply serve to change the target consumer. He added that the process of improving products’ nutritional value without wide advertisement is in no way underhanded, stressing that ‘unobtrusive’ reformulation, rather than stealth, is a better description.
“The gradual, unobtrusive reduction of key ingredients, without marketing claims, is key to the success of the important nutritional reformulation programmes — those that change mass market products rather than create new niche treats for the health aware,” he noted.
Further, he observed that – in general – consumers do not seem to care if their products are reformulated to contain sweeteners.
“The percentage of all soft drink sales in the UK that contain some sweetener is now 64%. Indeed, many consumers do not even know,” he said, citing Coca-Cola’s global re-branding of Coke Zero Sugar as an example.
“The reason behind Coca-Cola’s global re-branding of ‘CC Zero Sugar’ is in-house research that showed that 50% of Coke Zero consumers did not know that it contained zero sugar,” Professor Winkler said.
In any case, such reformulation methods are necessary, Osborn said, adding: “Consumers do need to start to recognise that the industry take these matters seriously and will take action using helpful guides such as this (FDF guide), with their health and welfare in mind.
“If the consumer hasn't noticed the change organoleptically, yet then complains that sugar was removed without their 'permission' then we as an industry are trapped in a catch 22.”