Nestlé says that sugar reduction remains a priority despite the announcement it is cutting its Milkybar Wowsomes product in the UK and Ireland owing to ‘underwhelming demand’ for the low sugar product which it launched in 2018.
Milkybar Wowsomes was the first product to use technology developed by Nestlé that effectively hollows out sugar crystals to give a more porous structure meaning the sugar content was cut by around a third.
A Nestlé spokesperson told FoodNavigator that despite poor demand for Milkybar Wowsomes the company remains committed to sugar reduction, and confirmed it is now working on new sugar reduction technology that it aims to introduce next year.
“Sugar reduction is a priority for our company, and we continue to develop proprietary technologies to reduce sugar significantly. Milkybar Wowsomes using our ‘structured sugar’ allowed us to reduce sugar by 30%, but the product did not meet consumer expectations in terms of price point and taste,” we were told.
“We have learned a lot from this project and developed an even higher performing, more versatile and affordable sugar reduction technology that will be introduced this year. We’ll also continue to reduce sugar gradually, replacing it with natural ingredients such as fibres, flour, dairy and cocoa powders. Since 2000, we have reduced the sugar content of our products by an average of about 34%.”
How to cut sugar without compromising taste?
The news that Nestlé is scrapping Milkybar Wowsomes illustrates the circle that food manufacturers in Europe need to square: namely the challenge of producing lower-sugar products – owing to pressure from consumers and governments – while not sacrificing taste.
At the time of the launch, Stefano Agostini, Nestle's chief executive for UK and Ireland, said: "A new product like Milkybar Wowsomes introduces greater choice and allows parents to treat their children with chocolate that tastes great but has less sugar.
"We are demonstrating how we can, and will, contribute to a healthier future and that we take our public health responsibilities very seriously," he added.
‘30% less products just don’t appeal to customers’
Holly Gabriel, a nutritionist from Action on Sugar, which campaigns in favour of sugar reduction policies in the UK, said there simply isn’t the demand for heavily promoted sugar-reduced products among consumers in the UK. She said she favours technology that instead reduces sugar in small increments over time.
“Chocolate and sweet confectionery are among the highest contributors of sugar in the British diet. One of the issues with the Government's voluntary sugar reduction programme is that manufacturers were given the option to divert sales to reduced sugar options as an alternative lever to reducing sugar in core lines, against our advice. This led to food and drink manufacturers creating and heavily promoting ‘30% less’ products which just do not appeal to such a broad range of customers.
“Had Nestlé used this technology to reduce sugar in its core lines in small increments over time, and without making claims on pack this would have undoubtedly 1) improved consumer acceptance and 2) reduced sugar intake on a population level. Excessive sugar consumption is contributing to the high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay in the UK. It is time retailers are pressed to act responsibly and no longer profit at the expense of our health. HM Treasury needs to explore further fiscal measures, in addition to the SDIL, to drive reformulation and provide healthier core line products for customers.”
Other routes to combat obesity
Unilever, meanwhile, has announced that by the end of 2020, it will stop marketing and advertising foods and beverages to children under the age of 12 in traditional media, and below 13 via social media channels, in an attempt to tackle rising obesity rates.
The company – whose Wall’s ice creams ads have been pulled in the past over complaints they marketed unhealthy food to children - said it would also limit the use of cartoon characters in its advertising. It also promised to stop using social media stars or celebrities 'who primarily appeal' to children under 12.
“We at Wall’s believe that everyone deserves a little joyous treat from time to time and we strive to offer something for everyone. Our promise is a genuine commitment to make and market products to children responsibly. It is the promise of better ice cream and healthier, happier children. Both now and in the future,” said Matt Close, Executive Vice President, Global Ice Cream Category.
'People don’t like sugar-reduced products…'
Other commentators, meanwhile, such as the libertarian think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, believe that the current obsession with food reformulation is pointless. In a report last year, it complained that the UK government’s policy of reformulation to reduce salt, sugar and calories “represents the largest extension of state control over the British diet since rationing” and shows “blatant disregard for consumer tastes and preferences”. It also added it believes there is no evidence that food reformulation improves health outcomes.
Or do they?
Professor Jack Winkler, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University, has a different take. He says reformulation is not the problem. There is demand for sugar-reduced products, he believes, but suggests they are not being promoted enough by brands.
“Milkybar Wowsomes were a good product,” he told FoodNavigator, adding that the product's failure had nothing to with taste. “The development team was successful in getting the sugar reduction and the taste right. Why have they failed? Because they didn’t market them. And the reason they are not marketing them is that they are absolutely scared to death.” Big confectionery brands, he said, are “afraid that saying 'less sugar' too prominently will contaminate their main brands… rather like the Irn-Bru story.”
But food brands, he suggested, should take confidence from the examples of Spain and Germany where lower-sugar chocolate is more widely distributed and accepted among consumers.