My 25 years in the food and drink industry has seen rates of diet-related disease increase to unprecedented levels. During that time I have spoken to many of my fellow nutritionists and consulted with GPs, psychologists and other experts on how these trends can be reversed.
Changing how we eat
In my experience they agree that the easiest changes to make to our diets are subtle. Major changes to the way we eat require a conscious effort on a daily basis for a sustained period of time – something that becomes even harder when we are eating and cooking in a family context. So small changes are undoubtedly easier for individuals to make.
Changing what we eat
However, I am also interested in how the changes we make without realising it can have a positive impact on our dietary habits. These are the changes that food manufacturers can build into their products, reformulating them to nudge us consumers into making healthier choices unconsciously and enabling many of us to get the benefits without even realising.
Help from manufacturers
There are many examples of this ‘health by stealth’ approach. Walkers have introduced their ground-breaking sunseed oil which has reduced the saturated fat content in their products by up to 80%. Mars reduced the saturated fat in Twix and Mars bars by 18% and 22%.
Setting achievable goals
Plus, it is difficult to get people to take action on messages about health – we know from the work that the Department of Health have done on ‘5 a day’ that is has successfully nudged up the amount of fruit and vegetables that people eat. The ideal number of portions is probably more like seven but as this may be unachievable for many people, DoH decided to use five portions as a more achievable goal with positive results.
Reducing salt in our food
Salt reduction is another example of where the food industry has taken an important (yet discreet) role in changing what we eat for the better. The Food Standards Agency invested in raising awareness of the issue amongst consumers while in the background, the food industry was reformulating its products en masse.
Today, the products in our supermarkets contain 8% less salt as a result of this collective effort.
Sugar in food remains a significant challenge
Not all nutrients will be so easy to remove from our food. Sugar in particular poses a significant challenge. This is especially the case when it is included for its physical properties as well as its sweetness, and in this case reduction has proven to be an especially difficult task.
Reducing sugar, salt and fat while increasing fibre
This ‘grand challenge’ is one of the reasons why Innovate UK has launched our current competition on how to reduce sugar, salt and fat in foods and increase fibre. The aim of this competition is to stimulate the development of new processes and products that lead to the availability of healthier food choices for consumers and open up new market opportunities for the industry.
Bringing together academia and business
By investing in innovation and bringing together expertise from across the food industry and academia we will have the best possible chance of discovering the solution to making innovative food products that are better for us and making those health benefits available for all UK consumers.
Collaboration in tackling this challenge is essential
The collaboration that our competitions require is an essential element of them. The food and drink industry is under enormous pressure to respond to the current obesity crisis and we have a fantastic wealth of food expertise in the UK – both inside and outside our universities. Indeed, innovation and collaboration may just prove to be the magic ingredients.
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