just-food’s contributing editor Ben Cooper predicts what will be the key issues in food sustainability circles in 2015, with the debate over sugar likely to continue to rage, while supply chains – in regard to environmental and retailer pressure – will also – command attention.

An extremely eventful year closes with a spat between scientists over whether salt or sugar poses the greater danger to heart health, which provides an indication of the way the diet and health debate might progress in 2015.

In short, the researchers suggest sugar may play a greater role in raising blood pressure and related conditions than salt. First and foremost, this suggests sugar consumption will most certainly continue to be the primary focus for public health agencies and campaigners in the coming year, as it has been in 2014.

Among campaigners and public health professionals, concern regarding the over-consumption of sugar, even if they do not all subscribe to the view sugar is addictive or a toxin, is now considerably greater than for the other nutrients of concern.

However, the fact one of the public health activists most associated with the heightened focus on sugar, Professor Graham MacGregor, quickly sought to stress the evidence for blaming sugar rather than salt for high blood pressure was “incredibly weak” is also telling.

MacGregor’s response suggests that, while continuing to focus on sugar, public health advocates will seek to ensure that focus does not detract from other public health advice. Re-emphasising the importance of balance in a diet is thought by many to be a more effective “message” to the public than demonising a particular nutrient.

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One very important reason is consumers’ understanding of nutrients is sketchy. Furthermore, there is a degree of fatigue on the part of consumers who perceive dietary advice regarding specific nutrients is constantly being revised and revisited. 

One is reminded of what Woody Allen has to say on the subject dietary fads. In the film, Sleeper, a health food fanatic awakes after being put in some form of cryostasis for 200 years. He naturally asks for some of his customary whole foods when revived, much to the puzzlement of his physicians. “Ah yes,” one remarks to another. “Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties.” “You mean there was no deep fat, no steak, no cream pies or hot fudge?” the other physician exclaims in disbelief. “Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true,” her colleague replies. “Incredible!”

When he is told a few moments later all the people he knew have been dead more than 200 years, Allen replies: “But they all ate organic rice.”

If the debate in the UK moves towards a more holistic view on dietary health, one likely consequence will be a greater discussion of portion sizes. So, with regard to diet and health the two most likely trends in 2015 will be a continuing focus on sugar, necessitating a continued emphasis on sugar in the reformulation strategies of major food companies, and a renewed focus on portion sizes. Given the challenges inherent in reducing sugar levels in formulations, the focus on portion sizes may be a positive trend for food companies.

Sustainability for food companies today is defined in terms of a relationship between three interdependent pillars, economic sustainability, human sustainability and environmental responsibility. As well as being interdependent, they compete with one another, and a virtuous balance is sought. 

Looking at the coming year under those three criteria, the growing evidence that the effects of climate change are increasingly being experienced in the form of extreme weather events will add urgency to food companies’ efforts both to make their agricultural supply chains more sustainable and also to shore them up from a risk standpoint. 

The debate is perhaps shifting towards addressing and dealing with more immediate fluctuations and disruptions, rather than looking at the broader issue of how rising global temperatures might affect supply chains and overall food security. 

If this adds urgency to corporate environmental efforts, it is likely to be welcomed by campaigners, provided solutions are not seen as temporary or short-term fixes. If there is any semblance that the long-term issues are being eclipsed, companies are likely to be heavily criticised. It appears that a balance will need to be struck here as well and, as ever, how companies communicate what they are doing in their supply chains will be crucial.

Supply chains may also be a focus with regard to economic and social sustainability in the coming year. The report published last month by insolvency specialists Moore Stephens which found that 146 food producers in the UK had entered insolvency up to that point in 2014, up from 114 in the whole of 2013 shone the spotlight again on how supermarket price wars have impacted on margins along the food supply chain. Further food price deflation is arguably exacerbating the problem. 

The economic sustainability of food manufacturers supplying supermarkets, not only in the UK but elsewhere, is likely to be an area of discussion and debate in 2015. However, this debate is almost certain also to extend back along the supply chain to agricultural suppliers, both in the developed and developing worlds. As economic fortunes revive, at least in some developed markets, it is likely that concern over working conditions and poverty in agricultural communities in the developing world, and the disparity in living standards, will gain more traction than might have been the case during previous years of global economic struggle.

Living standards may also be a prevalent concern closer to home. In spite of improving economic conditions in the UK, the US and other developed markets, there has been more or less constant media and political focus on the erosion in disposable income during the past six years. The increasing use of food banks is seen as a primary indicator of this trend, and food poverty is perceived as an extremely troubling issue in many developed markets.

This month, Unilever announced a three-year partnership with the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA), which the company says builds on an existing relationships between local food banks and Unilever operations in as many as 13 countries across Europe. In this context, food price deflation may well help, but there is a strong likelihood that the food industry, either at the individual company level or collectively, will have to increase its engagement in this area in response to public demand.

Food policy tends not to be a major issue in the run-up to elections. However, the issue of living standards and levels of disposable income is going to be an extremely prominent subject of discussion in the lead-up to the UK General Election in 2015 in May. 

In addition to how their commercial policies impact on the livelihoods, wages and living standards of those working in their supply chain, food companies could come under closer examination regarding the living standards of their employees. In the ‘people, profit, planet’ matrix, companies often stress the relationship with their employees, but this is not always afforded as much scrutiny as their outreach to suppliers or consumers. Given the erosion in the real value of wages, and the fact that the food industry is such a large employer of low-waged workers, this year may see attention focused on wages and working conditions in the food sector, and this may not be confined to the UK. 

Other political issues around food, such as the relative merits of the Public Health Responsibility Deal and the question of whether the food sector should once more be governed by a single unitary authority, will be largely eclipsed by other issues in the election. However, the issue of food supply chain integrity may re-emerge during 2015. The horsemeat scandal has left the UK in particular sensitised to issues of integrity and security in the food supply. Any new scandal, even of a relatively minor nature, will cause more questions to be asked of food companies and could see food policy take a more prominent role in the pre-election political debate than is customary.