The food industry across Europe needs to make a big effort to reduce saturated fat in food regardless of whether national agencies set targets - and it should not wait around for governments to do all the awareness-raising with its consumers.
No time to waste on reformulation Last week the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) published its programme to reduce saturated fat intake from 13.3 per cent of energy intake to 11 per cent. It estimates that around 3,500 deaths from lifestyle-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity could be prevented each year if its recommendations are met. The FSA's approach is two pronged. On the one hand, it is encouraging industry to reformulate products with less of saturated fat, overcoming the recognised technical challenges. On the other, it is planning a campaign to raise awareness with consumers of the consequences of eating too much saturated fat. In fact, industry in the UK has not held back until FSA came up with its targets before beginning to take action over saturated fats The Food and Drink Federation says its leading members have removed almost 30,000 tonnes of saturated fat from products since 2005 as part of a general effort that also targets sugar, salt and other baddies, and creates smaller portion formats. In other countries where FSA equivalents have not yet introduced targets on saturated fat reduction, the industry really needs to be taking similar pre-emptive measures to avoid being taken unawares and chastised by consumers for avoiding the issue for too long. In general, there is a tendency towards self-regulation in the food industry. 'If we don't take action ourselves then rules are going to be imposed from above - and we might not like what they come up with,' goes the argument. While the FSA is keen on engaging with industry, it does not necessarily follow that government agencies elsewhere will take the same cooperative approach. Spreading the word about saturated fats In a sense, if re-formulators do a good job and come up with products that taste as good as the original high fat, sugar or salt versions then the battle for consumers' stomachs is half way won. But consumers still need to know what they should be looking for from a product. To an extent the new European legislation on food labelling will help with this. The recent proposal from the European Commission seeks to make front-of-pack declaration of energy, fat, saturates and carbohydrates (with specific reference to sugars) and salt on the front of packs mandatory. In the UK, the FSA will be going a step further and conducting consumer awareness on saturated fat at the end of this year, beginning of next - although it has not yet decided exactly what tack it will be taking. While the primary goal of such a campaign is clearly to help consumers make the right choices, it will also encourage people to chose the industry's reformulated products. In a sense it will serve as marketing for the healthier foods category as a whole. But in all of Europe, not just the UK, the industry should be conducting its own consumer awareness programmes on saturated fat and healthier foods - and it should be doing this now. Why wait for the regulators to create a market for your products when, after all, it's the manufacturers who need to sell them? Sure, when a product type or trend is rubber-stamped by government the consumer may believe in it more than if it is being told to buy a product by the very people that stand to make money from it. But there will be a whole lot less cynicism about healthier product than there has been surrounding products that are high in fat, sugar and salt, for example. Healthier eating is no flash-in-the-pan trend that will be gone with next season's colours. Reformulation is crucial to ensure the future health of the consumer base at large - no matter what country they live in - and the future health of manufacturers' businesses. The time has come to reformulate, and to tell the world!
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com