What does the future hold for reformulation?

By Hannah Pearse, Head of Nutrition and Scientific Affairs at IGD

- Last updated on GMT

Can reformulation answer the mounting public health crisis? IGD shares industry perspectives / Pic: Getty Images Liountmila Korelidou
Can reformulation answer the mounting public health crisis? IGD shares industry perspectives / Pic: Getty Images Liountmila Korelidou

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With the impending publication of part two of the National Food Strategy in the UK, IGD convened major retailers, manufacturers, food service companies and members of the National Food Strategy team to discuss reformulation, the challenges, and opportunities. Here Hannah Pearse, Head of Nutrition and Scientific Affairs at IGD, shares an overview of the conversations from a series of roundtable discussions.

How much of a role could reformulation play in improving diets and what are the opportunities for the future?

Reformulation has been central to UK Government health strategies since the salt reduction programme was introduced back in 2006. Since then, there have been numerous targets and programmes for fat, sugar and calories.

It is broadly accepted that whole population strategies such as reformulation that remove the onus from the individual to make the ‘healthier’ choice can be effective. Furthermore, 77% of shoppers claim to be happy for recipes to be made healthier as long as they’re still tasty, according to IGD ShopperVista Base. So why hasn’t reformulation had a greater impact on public health?

With the majority of reformulation programmes to date being voluntary, the recent Hungry for Change​ report from the House of Lords, concluded that to be successful they required better monitoring, greater leadership from government and greater industry participation. 

To help inform the debate, and the National Food Strategy team as they develop their recommendations, three in-depth discussions were held with nutrition experts from major food and drink companies. Three main themes emerged.

Current reformulation targets: 'The easy wins have been done'

GettyImages-Jevtic research researcher science scientist
The industry has made progress towards government-backed voluntary targets / Pic: GettyImages-Jevtic

Reformulation is an area that industry feels it can play its part but will not be enough on its own to address the scale of the public health challenge. Widespread commitment shows that progress can be made, but we are a long way off meeting public health targets.

Despite the current programmes being voluntary, these targets are deemed to be more ambitious than mandatory targets in other markets. Reformulation will not be the answer for all categories and solutions such as portion size reduction may be a more effective approach, and companies would welcome guidance on this.

Reformulation is not without its challenges. Salt reduction is deemed a UK-wide success, yet this has been achieved over a period of two decades. A rushed approach to reformulation will not bring consumers on the journey. As consumers are increasingly seeking out clean label, more technical reformulations risk being rejected.

Much of the easy wins have been done and now some products are at their reformulation thresholds, raising challenges around shelf life and quality. Accurate monitoring of progress is an ongoing challenge, and one that needs to be overcome for a true evaluation of reformulation as an effective public health strategy.

Holistic reformulation and positive nutrition

To date reformulation targets have been predominantly focused on fat, salt, sugar, and calories. Government targets are not holistic and do not consider the composition of the whole product. For example, a product may be reduced in sugar without resulting in fewer calories, having limited impact on obesity.

There is widespread industry support for including positive nutrients and ingredients in the context of wider reformulation targets, where it will be beneficial for consumers’ health. This could include, fruits and vegetables, fibre, vitamins, and minerals.

There are existing initiatives in this space that we can learn from. Many companies are committed to voluntary targets or initiatives to boost positive nutrients. For example, the Food Foundation’s ‘Peas Please’ campaign, supports consumers to eat more vegetables through industry action. The positive competitiveness of campaigns like this can also help to accelerates progress.

With much of the population not currently meeting the recommended fibre intake, companies would also welcome a greater focus here. This could help to drive other positive dietary choices such as an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, wholegrains, beans, and pulses.

GettyImages-Visivasnc health claim label
The balance of positive nutrients should also be considered, industry believes / Pic: GettyImages-Visivasnc

Reformulating for improved environmental outcomes

It is well documented that a healthy diet based on plants, such as the Government Eatwell Guide​, is not only better for our health, but also for the planet.

Health is more of a driver for consumers to purchase than the environment, IGD’s 2020 Appetite for Change report demonstrates. Consumers generally struggle to understand the link between food and climate outcome. It is difficult to balance nutrition targets with sustainability priorities – the two aren’t always considered together and there's currently no consistent definition or way to measure ‘health and sustainability’ outcomes.

Despite the growing demand for plant-based options, they are not always healthier and further innovation is needed to deliver healthy, sustainable options that don’t compromise on taste.

GettyImages-Barmalini vegan plant-based burger
More innovation is needed to deliver healthy, sustainable plant-based products / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini

Many companies are working towards ‘net zero’ targets but to achieve this there is a clear need to work collaboratively to drive down emissions through the supply chain. The whole food chain should be considered from farm-level to fork, for improved environmental outcomes.

Supporting a ‘step change’ in health and environmental outcomes

From our discussions, we identified real appetite from industry to work with government to really step change how companies develop and improve products for better health and environmental outcomes. And industry welcome help to do it, with clear direction to enable them to act cohesively to drive systemic change.

For more information on how IGD is working with industry to make healthy and sustainable diets easy for everyone, visit IGD's website HERE​. 

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