Reducing sugar and salt – is less more?

My kids love ketchup. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t smother it over every single meal (though they probably would if I let them!) but a bit of red sauce does brighten up their plates on a fairly regular basis. Rather than feeling continuously guilty about this, I made the switch to the low sugar and salt variety quite a while ago. I did the same with baked beans, baby rusks, gravy granules, this list goes on.  The kids didn’t notice. I noticed but didn’t care. My husband noticed and cared but that’s another story!

I decided to make this ‘healthy’ change for my family, but the government and supermarkets have subtly (and not so subtly) been changing the way we eat for years. A recent episode of the BBC’s ‘Supermarket secrets’ revealed that the salt content in cornflakes has slowly reduced over the last 19 years, from 14g in 1998 to just 4g now. No-one shouted about it, it just happened, little by little over the years.  There was no ‘new recipe – contains less salt’ stamp on packs, no big advertising campaign.   This is possibly because people weren’t aware there was much salt in their cereal anyway, or because the biases of behavioural economics say that getting less of something can’t be a good thing.  Either way, the change has happened and most of us probably didn’t notice.

Not all changes have gone unnoticed.  Lucozade energy reduced its sugar content earlier this year and received a well-documented backlash from two camps.  Regular drinkers complained it tasted too different and diabetes campaigners said the new formulation would impact those using it to manage drops in blood sugar.  Some brands have had to change almost everything about themselves to survive the sugar backlash.  The much-loved Honey Monster, who spent the 80s telling us to “tell them about the honey, mummy!”, is now centre stage of the brand following the name change from Sugar Puffs to Honey Monster Puffs in 2014.  The packaging has also had a complete overhaul and formulation changed to contain less sugar and more honey (the fact that both break down to glucose in the body is a point we’ll gloss over!)

This trend towards less salt and sugar is also encouraging food producers to think creatively with the ingredients they use in NPD.  Iceland recently launched a new premium beef burger, it needed to boast excellent flavour and texture but without having too much added salt.  The magic ingredient they used…miso.  Although Iceland say the use of the ingredient is in response to the British consumer wanting to use more unusual ingredients when cooking, it is no surprise that the word ‘miso’ is very small on the pack.  However wonderful the fermented soy bean paste makes the burger taste – it certainly doesn’t sound that appetising!

Food producers are often given a bad rap for providing us with unhealthy food and drink – but the reality is that no-one is forcing us to buy it.  If I had a bit more will-power and determination I could probably wean my kids off the red sauce, but frankly life is too short and I’m a big believer that everything is fine in moderation.  It might seem like corporations are unresponsive to public pressure to change but the fact is that they are doing it, steadily and over a long period of time.  They may be motivated by sugar tax, or hitting certain psychological price points (I’m thinking of the ever-smaller bar of chocolate you can get for £1 in the supermarket!) but the reality is that there are healthier options if you want to embrace them.