McVities owner United Biscuits says campaigners view challenge of reformulation "simplistically"

McVitie's owner United Biscuits says campaigners view challenge of reformulation "simplistically"

While the Food Standards Agency's final recommendations on saturated fat and sugar show that it has been prepared to listen to industry concerns, the agency has set food companies challenging targets for reformulation. Ben Cooper reports.

As concerns over diet and health have risen in recent years, the word 'reformulation' has become increasingly common. Whether it is to reduce salt, sugar or saturated fat, or to replace colourings associated with hyperactivity, reformulation appears to be the order of the day for the food industry.

The latest recommendations on saturated fat and added sugar announced by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) urge industry to continue on the reformulation quest, while commending companies for the work they have done so far.

While speaking to the primary recurring concerns over pack sizes and levels of saturated fat and sugar, the FSA recommendations have taken account of industry concerns over the challenges reformulation entails.

In particular, the revised guidelines acknowledge the challenge of achieving calorie reductions along with reductions in saturated fat in chocolate confectionery, biscuits, cakes and buns.

For example, regarding plain, sweet and savoury biscuits the FSA says that by the end of 2012, companies should aim to reduce the saturated fat content by at least 10% against 2008. This should be accompanied by a calorie reduction, "unless not technically possible in which case businesses should look at other opportunities for calorie reduction for example portion size". The FSA said the revision takes account of the technical challenges of reducing calories in addition to saturated fat levels and said that calorie reductions should be sought "where this is possible".

In spite of the positive discussions during the consultation period and the concessions made, calorie reduction remains a sticking point.

It is the "prime technical challenge", says Barbara Gallani, director of food science and safety at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). "When you reduce saturated fat in order to maintain the taste and texture characteristics of the product you need to go for a replacement with a different fat with lower saturates, and any substitution is going to result in the same amount of calories".

Gallani concedes that the FSA has been "open" in its approach and amended its recommendations, but adds: "The way they've tackled this is they've seen what is possible and what has been achieved by individual companies and translated it into reformulation for the sector as a whole. Reformulation is challenging. Because it has been achieved by one company doesn't mean that everybody can get up to speed with reformulation, because of the complexities and because of the huge differences between different products and different processes."

For the recommendations to be met "you will need changes in layout of factories and to switch from solid to liquid fat and that implies that you can't use the same machinery," Gallani continues. "So there are a number of issues that require big commitment over quite a long period of time. This is what we have been talking about with the FSA. They have taken it on board to a certain extent but I'm not sure whether they have realised the direct implications of the recommendations."

Campaigners suggest that industry overplays the challenges reformulation presents. As Christine Haigh, coordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, puts it: "We have seen when industry puts its mind to something it can do it. I think we would like to see a tougher stance from the FSA rather than this tiptoeing approach. We would like to see them lay down the law a bit more."

However, a spokeperson for United Biscuits (UB) suggests campaigners are inclined to view this simplistically. "It is easy for campaigners to say that they want less fat, salt, sugar etc but manufacturing food often requires various natural reactions between these ingredients so that cakes rise and biscuits crunch etc," the spokesperson says. "Changing the amount of one often requires changes across the other ingredients.  Consumers would complain if we simply reduce the size of a product to meet the nutritional goals and so if we take something out we have to consider what we can replace it with that will maintain the balance."

UB, which helped advise the FSA on some of the technical challenges that manufacturers would need to overcome, says achieving the 10% reduction across all of its products would require "significant resource and investment". But it adds that against a 2008 baseline, a 10% target "does seem achievable in many categories", citing that over the last two years it had reduced the saturated fat in McVitie's Digestives by 80%. However, UB points out that the McVitie's reformulation project has involved a GBP14m investment.

Another problematic issue for industry has been the FSA's recommendation that companies offer smaller pack sizes in such a way as "to encourage consumer preference, for example by offering the smaller single-portion sizes at proportional value for money for consumers as larger packs".

Gallani says companies want to retain a wide variety of pack sizes to meet consumer needs, and providing smaller packs at equivalent value for money is "very difficult" because many of the other costs are not proportionally reduced. "Expecting the proportionality between reductions in portions and reductions in cost is a bit simplistic because of the way products are produced, transported and marketed," Gallani says. She also points out that "many manufacturers" offer healthier variants at prices equivalent to mainstream products.

However, the FSA has remained adamant that companies focus on their best-selling products. The objective here is clearly to bring down what might be termed the 'background' level of saturated fats and sugar, rather than for companies simply to offer better-for-you alternatives.

This is critical in tackling negative health impacts across the whole population as these tend to be concentrated in lower income groups. Products marketed as healthier tend to be sought out by better educated and better off consumers and those who are already aware of health concerns.

The FSA points to its successful campaign to lower salt consumption, where the key has been the gradual reduction in salt content in processed food in general. Campaigners want to see that success emulated with fat and sugar.

"I think ultimately we'd like to see changes in the default," says Mubeen Bhutta, policy manager at the British Heart Foundation. "Of course you can get low-fat products that are marketed and marked as such, but in terms of reducing saturated fat consumption overall, we'd like to see that come down across the board."

UB points out that the reductions in saturated fat in McVitie's Digestives, Hobnobs, Rich Tea, McCoy's and Hula Hoops have "all been made in the standard versions of the product, not a special 'light' version, and therefore our consumers are enjoying the benefits without necessarily being aware of them".

This is what public health organisations want but the goal for companies is in effect to change popular products while keeping them the same and it is no surprise that in technical terms this is far from easy.