Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Call to halve daily sugar intake poses challenges for brands

The announcement by the World Health Organisation that we should halve the amount of sugar in our diets will reopen the debate over healthy food labelling and whether this is the only way to encourage healthier eating.

Brands will not only need to consider the implications of the WHO guidance that our recommended sugar intake stay at below 10% of total calorie intake a day, with 5% the target, but also other factors that influence our shopping and consumption choices. The suggested limits apply to all sugars added to food, as well as sugar naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates.

The WHO announcement follows the introduction last year of a traffic-light system for packaging showing consumers a combination of guideline daily amounts, colour coding and "high, medium or low" wording to show how much fat, salt and sugar and how many calories are in each product.

The government argued that the scheme would help people choose healthier food options and make more sensible decisions about what to buy. Research published in 2012 by DEFRA showed that 80 per cent of people rated health as the most important factor affecting their buying decisions.

Most shoppers – 82% - said they actively sought to buy healthy foods. The figures also indicated, though, that people’s preferences don’t always match what they ultimately buy, with price being a major factor in many people’s buying decisions, especially in the current climate. In practise, though, anecdotally it would seem to be further down our list of priorities. Too much research focuses on one issue - such as labelling - in isolation, rather than at the issue as a whole.

At this point I cite the story of a colleague who undertook research among housewives, where each was asked to compare their last supermarket shop.

With all of the produce on the table, they discussed what they had bought and why. They became quite competitive and in their efforts to win their impromptu 'supermum' competition, they became strong advocates for their products. Health was rarely part of the argument. Price, offers, quantity, shelf-life, convenience came first.

On the demand side, it may be harder than expected for consumers to change their taste preferences. Taste preference can change with age, but if as an adult you have a sweet tooth it may be difficult to let go physiologically or even emotionally. This may provide an opportunity for alternative sweeteners like stevia and agave nectar, which may be seen as preferential to more processed ones like aspartame.

Even when health is considered, the consumer’s understanding of health is still poorly defined. In separate research undertaken by Engage, mum spent far more time than you would think possible trying to decide whether potatoes counted as one of your five a day. Milk - vital for child health - is too often restricted because it is seen as a high fat food (even though full fat milk is still only 4% fat). Most of them end up aiming for a balanced plate and call it a day.

It is going to be important to ensure that the consumer is educated to understand the information behind the headline WHO announcement. A knee-jerk reaction to a product with a red label on it could be counter-productive. The word ‘fat’ on a product could turn off the consumer, even though some fat in a diet is essential. Similarly, most products will contain an element of sugar, but some from natural sources like tomatoes rather than synthetic additives.

Brands are going to have to adopt a more holistic approach to health; stating the % of ingredients may not be enough. Brands and retailers may have to work together to create a well-being experience, which may involve the in-store experience - display, promotion, training and product presentation – as well as the brand itself.

The WHO announcement shows that this issue is not going to be quickly resolved. It’s time for brands to look at the wider context of healthy eating and be able to demonstrate to consumers that you can buy and eat healthy, tasty, products on a budget.


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