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This year’s Food Matters conference in London (November 21-23) once again unpicked the industry’s most pertinent pain points and offered creative solutions.
Label Wars: Bryonie Hollaert, company nutritionist at UK supermarket chain Morrison’s, explored current tensions in food and drink labelling. “Consumers want everything ‘on a stick’,” she said. “They want it to be detox, gluten-free, anti-inflammatory etc. but unfortunately, regulation lets us say very little on-pack. Even ‘vegan’ isn’t really properly defined as a label.”
She questioned the focus placed on the labelling of sugar, especially in light of the UK government’s recent suggestion to quantify it in ‘teaspoons’ on future packaging – something she feels will be “demonising and unhelpful”. Hollaert believes labelling fibre would be more productive: “Fibre is something so good and something we desperately need more of.”
Sugar still sparks hot debate in the food realm
Road to Reformulation: Speakers addressed the need to reformulate products with high levels of sugar, fat and sodium. Peter Harding, chief operating officer at Japanese-owned beverage company Lucozade Suntory, feels that Lucozade has succeeded here. “We’ve converted over 13 million consumers to a lower-sugar format,” he said. “We now steward a business that we believe is doing the right thing and can lead industry.”
However, Jane Lawrie, group communications director at UK supermarket chain Tesco, emphasised that taste still needs to reign supreme. “Our customers say that the healthier product doesn’t necessarily taste as good as the regular product. Taste really is the number one issue, so reformulation needs to be attractive and appealing.”
Joanna Allen, global brand vice-president at condiment giant Hellmann’s (owned by Unilever), agreed: “Taste is the reason we exist at Unilever.” She detailed a recent product tweak which involved substituting sugar for honey in one of its mayonnaise products.
Hellmann's honey-sweetened ketchup
Retraining the Palate: Speakers felt that for long-lasting dietary changes to manifest, brands need to start ‘retraining’ consumers’ palates. “We can retrain people to accept a lower level of saltiness in foods,” asserted Sue Gatenby, senior director of nutrition science at PepsiCo.
However, Lawrie cautioned a slow but steady approach. “At one time, our product developers decided to cut all salt from our chilled soup products, and when it came to taste testing, the products absolutely bombed. It needed to be done step by step.”
Harding also feels that taste preferences can be modified. “Over time, we need to re-educate palates. New soft drinks coming to market have much lower sweetness profiles, and this is a good thing. Our cactus water product is a good example of this. Look at Japan, where the preferred sweetness profile is much lower to the West.”
Allen also stressed the importance of catering to eco- and health-conscious consumers who prefer to consume less meat. “When we promote recipes, we make sure we are putting more plant-based dishes out there.”
However, Lawrie also felt that price is ultimately the key decision maker. She believes consumers can be led in the right direction by making healthier versions equal in price to the original ones, or available at reduced cost. “In May this year, [Hellmann’s] ran a health month where we made the lower-sugar and lower-salt varieties cheaper and more accessible,” she explained.
Give Preservatives a Break: In recent years, preservatives and additives have been given a bad name by brands and consumers alike (often for very good reason). However, panellists implored audience members to reconsider some of these ingredients.
“There are product quality implications when not including particular preservatives, and this is the case with one of our Hellman’s products in particular – so it must stay,” said Allen. “Also, preservatives can reduce food waste, so let’s make sure there are no unintended consequences when removing them.” PepsiCo’s Gatenby agreed: “Some additives are essential for food safety.”
For more on developments in sugar alternatives, see The New Sugar. Meanwhile, Culinary Provocateurs deals with heightened consumer consciousness around ingredients and product formulations.
Speakers asserted that consumer taste preferences can evolve