How best can the industry respond to this challenge, whilst at the same time responding to the often-fickle demands of consumers -- particularly in light of the current COVID-19 crisis appearing to accelerate the health concerns of shoppers keen to find foods that boost their immune systems? Or has it?
Professor Jack Winkler, former Professor of Nutrition Policy at London Metropolitan University and distinguished veteran of public health policy, is a keen advocate of sugar reformulation in the food industry, which he believes is vital given the obesity crisis in Europe and consequent effect it is likely to have on health systems.
However, he doesn’t agree with mandatory reduction targets, which he thinks are counterproductive. He believes getting these products to appeal to the masses is paramount. Key to this, he believes is a term he coined: “the unobtrusive strategy” which involves reducing sugar in popular foods silently. “We just do it and we don’t boast about it,” he said.
Holly Gabriel from the campaign group Action on Sugar has been calling for interventionist measures from the UK government – including bans on the advertising of unhealthy foods, mandatory nutrition labelling and mandatory reformation targets for the food industry in order to tackle the nations obesity epidemic, agrees in the reducing sugar by stealth approach.
“A true reformation programme that can be really successful is work that’s done incrementally behind the scenes to gradually reduce sugar in core line products that contribute most sugar and calories to people’s diets without anyone knowing about it or needing to know that work goes on,” she observed.
But are her group’s demands for mandatory actions to reduce sugar an example of the ‘nanny state’ going too far?
“It’s important to consider that not all population groups have the luxury of choosing [their diets],” she countered. “In deprived areas people have less access to healthy and fresh foods and rely very much on convenience.”
Food labels meanwhile make it very difficult to see the sugar quantities in products, she argued.
She warns that sugar is a major cause of obesity that increases a person’s risk of developing life-threatening illnesses.
“About 1 in 3 children are obese by the time the leave primary school. This puts them at risk of later developing related conditions such as heart disease cardiovascular, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.”
What do consumers make of all this? Laura Swain, an analyst at London-based Stylus, says consumers are ‘conflicted’.
“Eating less sugar is clearly a high priority for them…but at the same time they still have the urge to indulge.”
With that in mind, she suggests that food brands that cut sugar from everyday items that people want to eat every day offers them a golden opportunity to better connect with their consumers.