Big food, big con?

15 minute read

Are the new, so-called healthy, food products simply a smokescreen, asks Steve Jones


Consumers are increasingly looking for healthier foods, and food manufacturers are obliging. But are the new, so-called healthy, products simply a smokescreen, asks Steve Jones

“The only way to keep your health”, American author Mark Twain wrote at the end of the 19th Century, “is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not”.

An exaggerated observation maybe, but you get his point.

Whether you share Twain’s views or not, it’s clear Australians have chosen a path that, presumably, he would regard as a highway to ill-health; they have eaten what they wanted, drunk what they liked and done exactly what they pleased.  In other words, we eat, drink and do things – or don’t do things as the case may be – that are bad for us.

Not that Australians have been alone in embracing that ill-advised combination of consuming unhealthy food and beverages while assuming the couch-potato position.

According to the World Health Organisation, obesity across the globe has doubled since 1980, with 1.9 billion adults over 18 years classed as overweight, 600 million of whom are obese. In addition, diabetes rates have soared, with Diabetes Australia declaring it the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia.

“Type 2 diabetes is one of the major consequences of the obesity epidemic,” its website says. “The combination of massive changes to diet and the food supply, combined with massive changes to physical activity with more sedentary work and less activity, means most populations are seeing more type 2 diabetes.” It’s a grim outlook.

yet hope has emerged in recent times that attitudes to food are changing. A cursory glance around a supermarket would suggest a public, and a food industry, acutely aware of the need to improve the nation’s diet.

Consumers are seemingly filling their shopping baskets with more nutritious, wholesome goods, supermarkets are dedicating more shelf space to health and wellbeing products, and food manufacturers themselves appear to be diversifying into healthier product areas.

Such a trifecta should be positive news for health advocacy groups, which have identified obesity as their most pressing future battleground.

And it’s not just boutique firms which are, at least on the surface, stampeding towards the healthier high ground. Multinationals are increasingly developing what are marketed as nourishing and nutritious products, or reformatting existing lines with healthier ingredients.

Snack food giant Mondelez International, whose brands include Belvita, Cadbury, Oreo and Vegemite, has sought to lead the way, with a stated aim to become the “leader in well-being snacks”. By 2020, management aims to have its Well-being product range account for half its total portfolio. Furthermore, 70% of new product development is being channelled into the creation of healthier options.

The clear underlying reasons for such lofty ambitions lie, as Mondelez acknowledges, with consumers’ increasing interest in well-being, and their awareness “of the connection between what they eat and their health”.

“We see it as a key part of our growth strategy,” a Mondelez spokeswoman said. “We know people are becoming increasingly interested in well-being and ensuring a sustainable future, and we know we have a critical role to play in empowering consumers to snack mindfully.”

Among 2020 targets for Mondelez are to generate 25% of revenue from its Better Choices range, reduce sodium and saturated fat by 10% and increase whole grains across its portfolio by 25%. Limiting the volumes people eat through the introduction of individually-packaged product, each containing less than 200 calories, is also central to its plan, the company said.

“With the growing concern over sugar consumption and its impact on weight gain and other health considerations, we believe the best way we can help people reduce the amount of sugar they consume is through our efforts to reduce calories and offer portion-controlled options,” Mondelez said.

“In order to effectively maintain a healthier, more balanced diet, it is important to manage the intake of both sugar and calories.”

While Mondelez claims great strides are being made – its whole-grain targets have been hit five years ahead of schedule – “much more work” is required in the area of salt and saturated fat, the company says. “Challenges remain in offering options that retain the great taste and quality consumers expect,” it said. 

And therein lies one of the problems facing food manufacturers; maintaining taste and sales volumes amid attempts to eradicate or reduce unhealthy ingredients.

Maurice Swanson, chief executive of the WA Heart Foundation, said food companies throw enormous resource at ensuring they created products that reached optimal palatability, known as the “bliss point”.

“The food industry manipulates the composition of food by altering the cheap ingredients of salt, fat and sugar so they have maximum impact on your palate,” he said. “They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that combination right because they know people will eat more of it.”

The overriding priority for the food industry, Swanson said, was not the health and well-being of the population, but profits for shareholders.

Kellogg Australia, which has previously acknowledged the need to “move with the times”, is said to have spent a decade attempting to reduce salt and sugar content of its Nutri-Grain breakfast cereal while maintaining a taste that satisfied consumers.

“In such a competitive retail environment, products that do well stay on shelves, those that don’t are taken off. It’s as simple as that,” one commentator said.

Kellogg finally released a version of Nutri-Grain the company, and consumers were happy with, late last year in a recipe change which saw the product’s Health Star Rating rise from two to four stars out of five.

Marketing director, Tamara Howe, said a big component of Kellogg’s innovation was geared towards healthier products. “But we need to make sure the nutrition that we are offering is also one that is great tasting,” she said, arguing there was no point launching a healthier product that no one bought.

“So we are always looking to strike that balance between nutrition and what people will eat.  The consumer is our boss. We constantly ground our decision-making in what they tell us.”

Yet with that in mind, what troubles health campaigners and advocacy groups is whether food companies truly are diversifying and reinventing themselves, or whether consumers are, to some extent, being hoodwinked by misleading claims, clever packaging and sharp marketing.

Swanson, who has spent decades locked in combat with tobacco firms and now is settling in for a protracted battle against obesity, pointed to recent action taken against Heinz by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

In proceedings that have kicked off in the Federal Court, the commission alleges Heinz flouted Australian consumer law over statements made on packaging of Little Kids Shredz, a product designed for one- to three-year olds. On the packaging, Heinz said it contained “99% fruit veg”, telling parents: “Our range of snacks and meals encourages your toddler to independently discover the delicious taste of nutritious foods.”

That, however, is not quite how the consumer watchdog sees it.  The commission accuses Heinz of marketing the products as healthy options for young people, “when they are not”.

“These products contain over 60% sugar, which is significantly higher than that of natural fruit and vegetables. For example, an apple contains approximately 10% sugar,” commission chairman Rod Sims said.

Far from encouraging children to develop a taste for nutritious food, such products, are likely to “inhibit the development” and simply encourage them to “become accustomed to, and develop a preference for sweet tastes,” the commission says.

Sims described the case as “enormously significant” that would, should the watchdog win, have “major implications for how food is sold in Australia”. He also sounded a warning that his organisation was gunning for large businesses and taking a close look at the veracity of health claims.

“We are particularly concerned about potentially misleading health claims for products being for marketed for very young children,” he said.

Heinz, which has withdrawn the product from shelves, has rejected the allegation but did not respond to calls from The Medical Republic for further comment.

Another recent case saw Unilever and Smith’s each fined $10,800 for misleading consumers over claims two products, Sakata rice crisps and Paddle Pops, were “canteen-friendly”. In the case of Sakata, the company had included a company-made logo on the packaging, which could easily be mistaken for a government or independent authority’s logo.

Swanson said he was not encouraged by the production of healthier products by food companies, arguing much of it was a smokescreen.

“We have stepped up our action to identify product claims of that type,” he said. “They want to give the appearance they are genuinely concerned about people and communities who consume their product.

“The money made by these companies comes from highly manufactured foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat because they are cheap ingredients, highly palatable and mass produced. They are researched for palatability to the nth degree and that is what they are making truckloads of money out of.”

Dr Helen Vidgen, senior research fellow at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology, suggested food companies were more concerned with using health and nutrition as a selling tool rather than creating food with genuine health benefits.

“The food industry is very much in tune with what kind of imagery and packaging will make a consumer think a product is healthier,” she said, explaining that while regulations around specific health claims were tight, there were loopholes.

“For example, a food company will say ‘this product is a good source of calcium’ and have a picture of bones on the packaging. They might not meet the regulations to make a claim about improving bone mineral density for example, but they can put images all over the product.

“It’s almost the luck of the draw. They all use imagery on the packaging and talk about nutrition but it’s very difficult to make a judgment on whether or not it’s healthy.”

Asked if manufacturers were sometimes disingenuous, Dr Vidgen said: “Yes, I would say so. Take something like the Goji berry [which has been the subject of health claims]. It is not nutritionists or dieticians telling people to go and buy them. It’s the food industry that is creating that impression.”

The expansion into apparently healthier product areas was likened by Swanson to food companies’ sponsorship and support of health charities or community projects designed to encourage physical activity.

According to Swanson, this expansion into so-called “healthy” foods is scarcely more than a cynical attempt to distract attention from the real causes of obesity, to win over politicians and to stave off regulation.

“It’s a brilliant strategy. Companies like Coca Cola are trying to frame the [obesity] issue as one of physical activity,” he said. “They are taking the emphasis off what people are eating and drinking. How you frame the conversation in advocacy debate is crucial and they want it framed as an issue of sloth, that the reason you are overweight is because you are bone lazy.”

New York University nutrition, food studies and public health professor, Marion Nestle, who lectured in Australia earlier this year and has written several books on nutrition and the food industry, said the reasons behind the shift to healthier product was two-fold.

“They are trying to [sell healthier foods] in order to meet public demand. But being able to say “look at all the good things we are doing” is one way to head off regulation,” she told The Medical Republic. “The question we should ask is this: is a slightly better-for-you product a good choice? A vitamin-supplemented junk food is still a junk food.”

While many firms are attempting to diversify their product range, confectionary giant Nestlé is going several steps further by building a division to invent and sell medicines through food-related products. The plan, well under way, is part of Nestlé’s goal to redefine itself as a “nutrition, health and wellness company”.

The medical component of its empire comprises the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS), which says it is exploring ways food can be transformed into therapies to help tackle a range of conditions, including gastrointestinal symptoms.

Running alongside NIHS is Nestlé Health Science, a division that has already acquired stakes in several drug firms. One deal saw it invest $65 million in Seres Health, a microbiome therapeutics platform company developing a novel class of biological drugs designed to treat disease by restoring the function of a patient’s microbiome.

The move has raised an ethical debate over whether Nestlé is attempting to help solve the problems it, and its competitors, are partly responsible for creating.

Nestlé declined to be interviewed about its pharmaceutical expansion but said it had “had a long commitment to renovate our products” in Oceania, with reductions in salt in its Maggi 2-Minute Noodle range, while its Uncle Toby muesli bars had been “reformulated”.

Marion Nestle – who has no links with the company that shares her name – described selling the problem and solution as “a great marketing strategy”.

“I have no doubt that these companies employ people who are genuinely interested in public health and want to make products that will promote the health of people and the planet,” she said. “But food companies are not social service agencies. They are businesses with a singular purpose; to make profits for investors.

“This drives product development. If the products don’t sell, the health strategy won’t work. Investors will complain, CEOs won’t get bonuses, and directors will be forced to take action. That said, Nestlé is an impressive company with a long track record of profitability. It can afford to experiment.”

The Heinz action followed a complaint by the Obesity Policy Coalition, which conducts regular research into the claims made on packaging. Previous studies have homed in on fruit drinks, with OPC executive manager Jane Martin suggesting many brands sell a healthy message when the reality is somewhat different.

“It’s good to see these companies taking steps but it needs to be meaningful,” she said. “Some of these foods are much more similar to confectionary than healthy foods. They use representation of whole fruit on packaging. But just because sugar comes from fruit doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It has the same impact on teeth and contributes to overweight and obesity further down the line.”

Martin added that the product reformulation trend was partly triggered by the introduction two years ago of the Health Star Rating system, an initiative designed to help consumers make more informed choices.

But while a step in the right direction, the voluntary nature of the star rating system allows brands to pick and choose which of their products will participate. It is, say health campaigners, further indication of the food industry’s reluctance to be transparent.

“Look, I think the scheme overall works well, but the industry lobbied very, very hard against making it mandatory,” Martin said. “So some brands are putting stars on their healthy products but not on what would be low-star products. That makes it very difficult for the public to make healthier choices. It’s pretty unfair when we know diet is a leading cause of disease in Australia.”

Kellogg Australia’s Howe agrees that the industry should share in the responsibility for people’s health and insisted her company armed shoppers with all the information they needed.

“We have always been about transparency which is why we were the first company to put daily intake guides on our pack and we now have the Health Star Rating system,” she said.

“We also have an initiative called Open for Breakfast on our website where consumers can ask us questions. I guess the point for me is that we offer choice. We offer great healthy foods like Sultana Bran and All Bran and treats that are great on weekends.”

The Australian Food and Grocery Council said in a statement that local food and beverage companies were global leaders in developing healthier products.

“Trans-fat has been virtually removed from the Australian food supply, there are almost endless varieties of staples like high-fibre bread and low fat milks and thousands of tonnes of salt have been removed from the food supply through voluntary reformulation efforts,” the council said.

Yet it is exactly this din around health products that often leaves consumers scratching their heads.

According to Dr Vidgen, while the proliferation of health-related products might appear to be something to be welcomed, it was, in fact, enormously frustrating.

So confusing had the picture become that Dr Vidgen said we were losing sight of what we really should be eating.

“Consumers believe the message about healthy eating changes. And they get this impression based on what the food industry is marketing,” she explained. “But the message has also been the same – to eat core foods.” And that, despite the clamour for a healthier diet, is precisely what we are still failing to do.

Dr Vidgen highlighted research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that revealed only four in 100 people consumed the daily amount of vegetables as recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Meanwhile, only one in 10 met the guidelines for dairy products, while 30% of children’s energy came from “discretionary foods” such as confectionary and pastry.

All of which points to a society that may believe it is eating healthier products, but is not.

“I am more disenchanted than enthused [about the amount of health products on shelves], because of the confusion that comes from making claims about healthy foods,” Dr Vidgen said.

“It used to be simpler. It might appear there are healthier products on sale but it’s harder to navigate your way through the cacophony of foods making claims to be healthy, when the reality is, they aren’t.”


End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×