As the International Food & Drinks Event in London came to a close earlier this week, a striking note has been industry warning consumers that, due to government and regulatory efforts, things are going to change. To misquote the song, things can’t only get better.

Amidst the usual ‘holistic approach’ conversations around nutrition, diets, labelling, transparency, portion sizing, reformulation, healthy living and education, the industry has been keen to point out that all of this will come at a price. The industry is ready to change and do the right thing to tackle the great public health crisis of our time. But it’s not a silver bullet scenario and will take time. Sugar isn’t just about bulking their products out – it’s a fundamental component of their products and acts as a carrier vehicle for other ingredients. Therefore changes will be fundamental. A change in taste. A change in expectations. A change in behaviour. Ultimately, a change in what we are eating and what we enjoy.

Any long-term change therefore has to include consumers, albeit a diverse bunch, in a more integrated way if genuine behavioural reform is going to be achievable. This is even more important when you consider the weaknesses in consumer research, whereby consumers often subconsciously lie to sound more willing to embrace change. As a result, everyone pats themselves on the back and is confident sustainable reform is happening. 

Actually, it is creating a mirage and there is a risk of consumers rejecting these changes out of hand, especially if they are pursued overnight.

Salt, the argument goes, took many years to meet consumer expectations. As did innovation and R&D within food firms to keep pace with a changing market. 

Interestingly, this broader point has been picked up – albeit in perhaps a slightly out of context way - by The Times with comments from Tim Rycroft from the Food and Drinks Federation, the UK umbrella body for food producers, that big companies would be unable to meet the ‘arbitrary’ 20% sugar reduction timescales and more breathing space needs to be given to companies. 

Combined with some other interesting comments about the soft drinks levy potentially becoming a ‘distraction’ in the fight against obesity - given only 3% of calories come from soft drinks - and questions regarding why mineral water is taxed at the same rate of VAT as a chocolate bar,  this might be indicative of a growing confidence and alignment amongst the industry that regulators and legislators, as well as consumers, have to get ‘real’ about what is actually possible in what timescales. 

Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. So, it seems, is food.

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William Wallace

William Wallace is an integrated communications consultant specializing in public affairs and issues management. Read More