“You are what you eat” is the oft-bandied cliché that healthy-living aficionados tell the masses. Yet, according to new research from City University, London, the masses are not being given sufficient opportunity to eat healthily.

The 80-page report, The Food Industry: Diet, Physical Activity and Health, found the world’s top 25 food companies appear not to be taking the new global diet and health agenda seriously enough.

The study, which included the top ten manufacturers, top ten retailers, top five foodservice firms, top three fastfood giants and top two contract caterers, concluded that companies needed to change from defensive action to anticipation of health trends.

Cadbury Schweppes, ConAgra, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Ahold, Carrefour, Tesco and Compass were the only companies in the 25 that reported they were acting on salt, for example.

Five reported action on sugar: ConAgra, Kraft, PepsiCo, Unilever and Ahold; four reported action on fat – Kraft, PepsiCo, Compass and Yum!; and eight reported action on trans fats – Cadbury Schweppes, ConAgra, Danone, Kraft, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Ahold.

In the early days of the UK’s salt-reduction campaign, regular calls to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) on the issue served only to confirm its reluctance to accept there was a need to reduce salt in processed foods.

Twenty years later, salt reduction has become sexy and the Food Standards Agency last month published voluntary targets for reducing the salt content of foods, even if these targets are not as tough as critics would have liked.

The healthy eating bandwagon presents a financial opportunity for the food industry, rightly or wrongly. Nowadays, a growing body of consumers seek out healthy and organic food and it can seem that supermarkets slap on a premium for the privilege.

Surely it is not right that poorer citizens should be penalised when selecting healthy options.

Waitrose, in the UK, for example, is difficult to beat for quality food with an organic selection that is second to none. Yet one is lucky to get change out of £100 (US$178) for the weekly shop.

Another example in the UK is the sea-change occurring in the area of school dinners, the unhealthy nature of which was highlighted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, forcing Compass, the world’s largest contract caterer, to withdraw the infamous Turkey Twizzlers about a year ago.

The World Health Organisation says that more than one billion people in the world are classified as overweight, a million of them obese. Now for the first time, obese children have become a concern of government in the UK and also in other countries. Even the mighty McDonald’s has been forced to add what it regards as ‘healthier’ options to menus.

The trend is global: in the US, marketing consultant Information Resources (IR) reported earlier this year on the huge new product development opportunities associated with healthy eating.

It said new products, such as Nabisco 100 Calorie Packs and Sara Lee Heart Healthy Bread, had been met with strong success and illustrated the market potential for convenient, healthy food.

Major new US government initiatives were launched last year to help people eat better and make informed decisions. They included new label requirements for both trans-fat content and the presence of food allergens which came into effect at the beginning of this year.

The United States Department of Agriculture issued the new food pyramid, MyPyramid, which reflects the new 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These recommend the need to reduce saturated and trans fats and to eat more whole grains.

Target Group Index (TGI), in a healthy eating report published last summer, noted that in China, for example, yogurt consumption had soared among 18-24-year-olds and in Poland, the same age group had latched on to fat-free and bio varieties.

In the US, 45% of the population chose low-fat and “healthier” snacks, such as cereal bars, granola and fruit.

Even in the world’s developing markets, healthy, functional, low-fat and low calorie food and drinks markets represented considerable opportunity for growth everywhere, TGI said.

There are some disparities in Western Europe, though: general health-consciousness appears to be growing in Britain, France and Spain but declining in Germany.

It would seem, however, that in many parts of the world, as the City University study would indicate, it has often been a case of the food industry being dragged kicking and screaming down this route. Once changes are underway, however, companies are only too keen to emphasise their deeply-held commitment to healthy eating, funnelling marketing and advertising resources into expensive consumer education campaigns.