A matter of taste

Breakthroughs in food science are challenging beliefs that have driven global food producers to create products loaded with salt, sugar and hydrogenated fat. That is leaving the industry ripe for disruption.

Breakthroughs in food science are challenging beliefs that have driven global food producers to create products loaded with salt, sugar and hydrogenated fat. That is leaving the industry ripe for disruption.

Sausage rolls produced by the UK bakery chain Greggs are the stuff of legend; “pure comfort”, according to reviews online. So, news that the company has developed an award-winning vegan wrap, and sales growth is being fuelled by the firm’s healthy eating options, says a lot.1

“Consumers are increasingly moving towards “no bad stuff” foods. So says the data provider IRI, which surveys the UK food retailing market.2 That means “no bad stuff” in how goods make it to the shelf, and in what they contain. There is also growing interest in fresher, healthier choices to those loaded with salt, sugar and additives.

Just a little comfort eating?

Image of salt being sprinkled on chips

About time, perhaps? The UK has a problem with obesity, and it is not alone. The number of obese people has tripled worldwide in the last forty years. This is worrying given the range of health problems linked with being overweight.

Yet many people globally still do not get enough food to eat. Facing the problems of over-eating and not enough food at the same time is a ‘double burden’. It is alarming for public health workers, already fighting health emergencies. But eating too much is the greater of the two problems, affecting 1.9 billion people worldwide over the age of 18.3    

It is hard for people to make good food choices, particularly when the messages are unclear. This is even true of simple ones, like ‘eat more fresh fruit and vegetables’. That can mean at least five portions a day (as recommended by health authorities in Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Chile and Estonia), six a day (in Denmark). Or it can mean ‘two plus five’ (two portions of fruit and five of veg, as in Western Australian guidelines). Meanwhile, it can mean ‘more’, in the US, which recommends that fruit and veg make up around half of a notional plate.

Cut to the facts

So why are the messages so unclear?

One surprising factor is that food science is quite young. It is only since the turn of the century that it has become clear that diet and food patterns are much more significant for the development of chronic disease than focusing on single nutrients.

Image of carrots

Detailed assessments of nutrients, foods, diet patterns and health outcomes are relatively new and scientists still do not fully understand all the complexities. This means engineers can blast a Tesla into space, but do not understand the secrets of, for example, the carrot even though we have eaten them for several thousand years.  

Against this backdrop, different areas of dietary concern have emerged. Humans are drawn to sugar, and average consumption has risen sharply as more people choose sugar-laden convenience foods.

Research has sparked a revolution in thinking and investing in food. Purists are suggesting it is time to get back to basics: back to traditional eating patterns and sustainable, less intensive agriculture. At the other end of the scale, agri-food start-ups have recently been successful in attracting funding to innovate. US$10.1 billion of capital was raised in 2017 alone. Large companies are also pouring investment into internal research and incubators.

A new generation of ‘clean’ food products may also be on the horizon. Using a process that is in development and backed by the German technology company Merck and meat processor Bell Food Group, there could, for example, be no need to kill livestock.

The environmental implications could be huge. Remember that using lush, naturally fertile meadows can use 15,415 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef.4

An industry ripe for disruption

Image of vegan food

As a result, the food industry is on the verge of major change. It is perhaps best viewed like the technology sector in the early days of the internet. Technological advances are likely to ripple through. These will challenge large, established food and drinks firms who grew through industrial food production techniques.

Their desire to create convenience goods with long shelf lives was a key driver in the past, when firms sought to spin out products across the globe. A small number were very successful, growing to generate billions of dollars in sales every day, but they now face disruption as old truths are challenged.

Take Kellogg’s, for example, a company selling into 180 markets worldwide. Its shares have lagged the S&P 500 for several years.  After pressure from food regulators to reformulate with less sugar, Kellogg has promised to act, but sales of sweetened cereals are in decline.

“Most food companies in the US and globally are choosing to focus on ‘health and wellness’ now,” according to Aviva Investors’ US consumer analyst and equities portfolio manager David Bucolo in Chicago. “There have been a series of large acquisitions in this space, the most significant being Danone buying WhiteWave in 2017 for US$10.4 billion.”

Image of a girl eating candyfloss

Over on the drinks’ aisle, Coca-Cola is also in the process of changing. More than 30 countries now have forms of sugar tax in place. Moreover, the list is growing. But their use is less extensive than for targeting smoking, where 180 countries have a tax in place.

“The path to taxation was started by a consensus around the negative impacts to society and an assessment of financial costs to the public,” according to Abigail Herron, global head of responsible investment at Aviva Investors. “Behavioural taxes can help protect health and generate revenue.”

A single, traditional can of Coke contains around 35 grams of sugar. This is the same as around seven teaspoons, more than the standard adult recommendation for a day. With regulatory intervention, Coca-Cola’s strategy has been to market ‘diet’ versions more heavily and target healthier or lifestyle brands. This is not a new trend, as sales of classic sodas have been falling in the US for some time.

Now the lighter products sell better than ‘full fat’ Coke in some markets, while the feel of the newer brands is different. It’s more about products with ‘natural’ enhancement, hence the interest in coconut water, a “superstar of hydration”, according to the American Society for Nutrition,5 which is naturally rich in electrolytes.

Keep it simple

Image of food being prepared on a chopping board

While the food industry is apparently shifting towards ‘health’ (“almost every snack company on the planet”, according to Bucolo), it is worth taking a considered view of product claims. Almost one third of products in recent food launches made ‘natural’ claims; double the number a decade ago, and the market is hugely crowded.6 Environmental and ethical claims are being used more widely as well.

Navigating food choices is never going to be straightforward. But, as science moves on, it is reassuring to know experienced nutritionists seem to be going back to traditional dietary messages, suggesting diets broadly based on a variety of fresh foods, eaten in moderation. 


1 UK baker Greggs reassures investors with resilient first half. Reuters. 31 July 2018.

2 IRI Top Trends in Fresh: Food for Thought on Transparency, Social Strategy. 15 August 2018.

3 World Health Organisation. http://www.who.int/nutrition/double-burden-malnutrition/en/

4 UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Global Food: Waste Not, want not.  January 2013.

5 Coconut Water. American Society for Nutrition.

6 Global Food and Drink Trends 2018, Mintel.


Rob Davies
Head of PR and Thought Leadership

James Whiteman
Head of Client Communications & Content

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