European food industry debates the future
Executives, regulatory managers, product developers and academics met in late October at the historic Le Plaza hotel in Brussels, Belgium, to debate some of the tough issues facing food manufacturers. Over two days, delegates heard presentations on a wide range of topics, with the issue of obesity coming under particular scrutiny. The rising rates of child obesity generated a lively debate when Lizzie Vann, managing director of Organix Brands, accused large food companies of continuing to produce unhealthy products, while using their profits to support education and socially responsible initiatives.
Child psychologist Claus Vogele said blaming certain foods was misguided. ?The increase in portion size and lack of physical activity are among the most likely contributors to the obesity epidemic,? he said.
Delegates heard examples of initiatives in Finland and Italy where organic food is offered in schools in many regions. And in the UK, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has forced the government to change school meals as a result of his TV expose on that topic.
Claims and profiling
Discussions turned to the complex issue of communicating health benefits to consumers, and ?wellness? was the recurring theme. Euromonitor statistics confirm that successful products are generally those that target wellness rather than make specific claims.
?The presentation by Benecol was one of several that demonstrated very clearly that branding strategy and innovation in marketing and packaging are more important than science in creating profits,? said conference chairman Julian Mellentin. ?Medical-sounding claims don?t sell products.?
Another hot topic focused on the controversial subject of nutrient profiling. The problem: how to analyse the nutrition values of different foods and beverages.
Guy Valkenborg from Brussels-based consultancy European Advisory Services warned that many accepted foods such as margarine with phytosterols, calcium-enriched fruit juice and iodised salt could have an unfavourable nutrient profile under proposed EU legislation. He also questioned how companies could invest in research if they didn?t know if their potential claims will be considered acceptable.
Professor Andre Huyghebaert from Ghent University in Belgium said nutrient profiling did not serve any purpose. ?People don?t eat individual foods but meals,? he said. ?Nutrient profiles don?t take into account individual food habits, and products with reduced salt and sugar are less tasty. People will add salt and sugar themselves.?
But larger companies are not waiting for legislation, and food giants such as PepsiCo and Kraft are already introducing their own sign-posting and guidance systems to help consumers monitor their diets.
The concept of indicating healthier choices by category has been successful in Australia, according to Tony Fear from the National Heart Foundation of Australia. The Tick Program there uses a logo to indicate a healthier choice within a specified category and is only awarded to products that have met strict nutrition standards.The event was sponsored by The Solae Co, CoroWise, Meg-3, Orafti, Natural Hi-Maize and Nairn?s.