The government has laid down the gauntlet: food producers should cut calories by 20 per cent in certain products by 2024. This isn’t legislation but, in the wake of the Sugar Tax, the implication is that it could be. Here’s the lowdown on the strategy and what you can do.
Why is there a 20% calorie-reduction target?
Public Health England (PHE), the driver of the initiative, says the target would cut NHS costs by £4.5bn over 25 years and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths.
While it would benefit the population at large, it says that children are the prime focus: “We have more obese children in England than ever before – we have one in five children arriving in primary school already obese or overweight and one in three leaving primary school obese or overweight,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE.
The target builds on the government’s plan for tackling childhood obesity and follows PHE’s recent recommendation that parents should limit their children to two 100-calorie snacks a day. Alongside the sugary drinks tax starting in April, these combined efforts will affect 50% of children’s overall intake of calories.
What are the food categories being targeted?
The strategy outlines 13 food categories, including savoury biscuits, cooking sauces, sandwiches, ready meals and potato products (e.g. crisps and chips). Foods in PHE’s separate strategy to reduce product sugar content – such as chocolate, cakes and breakfast cereals – are not included.
Tedstone stated that, by 2019, PHE would produce guidance for the food industry outlining specific categories of products, and it would report regularly to government on the steps (major) companies take. She added that the government might invoke “other levers” if progress isn’t being made.
Professor Francesco Rubino, Chair of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at King’s College London expressed concern about what substances the food industry might use to reduce calories: “If you ask the food industry to change their products to reduce calories, you don’t know exactly how they will accomplish that.”
How can food producers can reduce the calories in their products?
It’s important, therefore, that conscientious food producers look carefully at how calorie reductions are made. When formulating your product, there are a number of options for adjusting the recipe to reduce calories, keeping the product in balance (for flavour, cost, texture, claims and differentiation).
Switch the fat
Looking at the nutritional profile of your ingredients is a key part of calorie reduction. Product development for the current market requirements is significantly more sophisticated than switching out calorie-dense natural ingredients for artificial additives.
EU labelling values for nutrients are as follows: fat = 9kcal per gram; alcohol = 7kcal per gram; carbs (including sugar) = 4kcal per gram; and protein = 4kcal per gram. So, one option is to switch fat-containing ingredients (or alcohol components in drinks) for more satiating protein, or even just lower calorie carbohydrates.
Adjust portion size
Of course, it’s not just calorie cutting. Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, said smaller portion sizes were likely to be the most common solution.
This makes sense. After all, portion sizes have been steadily growing and our waistlines with them. Making a portion smaller, but just as filling is certainly possible.
Make products more filling
Fat, fibre and protein all have a satiating effect – and by focusing on the lower calorie protein, and also fibre, (not all of which is digested) can help customers feel fuller without so many calories.
Later meals = fewer calories
The timing of food consumption is an important factor. Having a heavy meal at night doesn’t always make sense, considering we are usually winding down. So it may make more sense to focus on calorie reduction in meals that are consumed later in the day.
Swap calories for micronutrients
Focus on foods which are micronutrient dense, and not necessarily calorie dense, such as fruit and vegetable based ingredients.
Natural flavourings can significantly help boost product acceptability if the flavour delivery from base ingredients is reduced.