Ironically, one legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic could be a healthier world. The crisis has forced people everywhere to think about their health and wellbeing, and confront issues such as poor diet and lack of exercise. Many say they are determined to make positive changes.

For the global food and drink industry, from product producers to retailers, this trend brings both carrot and stick. On one hand, consumer demand for healthier products is a driving opportunity; the consultancy McKinsey believes the health and wellness sector globally is worth $1.5 trillion a year, and a recent survey of consumers in six countries found widespread plans to increase spending. On the other hand, policymakers are determined to act, planning new restrictions on advertising of unhealthy food and increasing food standards regimes.

Governments take action

These regulatory interventions reflect the growing concern for the impact of poor nutrition on people’s health and the state spending required to respond. Poor diets, including those with foods high in calories, sugar, and salt, are a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and general mortality.

One 2019 study found that poor diets account for 18% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes costs in the United States, or $50bn a year. Separate research from the World Health Organisation has put the equivalent annual costs to the U.K. and Australia at $10.5bn and $1.5bn respectively. 

For food producers and retailers, the focus on nutrition may require a new approach. Regulation will make it more difficult to market products deemed unhealthy, or even prohibit their sale. Even without restrictions, customers may be less interested in buying such products, switching to brands offering healthier alternatives.

In the U.K., for example, the government has announced that from the end of 2022, advertising of products high in fat, salt, or sugar will not be allowed on television before 9 pm; there will also be restrictions on online advertising. The move is part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy, aiming to restrict children’s exposure to advertising of less healthy products.

The war on sugar

In addition, the U.K. has also introduced a “sugar tax”, a fee on soft drinks that contain more than 5g of sugar per 100ml. By ensuring these drinks are more expensive, the U.K. hopes to reduce consumption. More broadly, Public Health England has published a series of voluntary reformulation targets to encourage manufacturers to improve the nutritional values of their food. These include reduction targets for calories, sugar, and salt.

War on Sugar

The U.S. is also beginning to take action. For example, under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, major U.S. food companies have pledged that advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 will only feature products that meet certain nutritional criteria. The Biden administration was recently shocked by a report suggesting the U.S. military was struggling to recruit because so many young people are overweight or obese. Separately, the Food & Drug Administration has begun a review of the criteria producers will need to meet in order to define their products as “healthy.”.

Elsewhere, the new Labor government in Australia has promised to explore policies including a sugar tax similar to the U.K.’s and restrictions on junk food advertising. In New Zealand, the government is currently implementing new rules on the alcohol industry, forcing manufacturers to publish more detail on calorific content. The European Union has just begun consulting on similar regulations, which would cover every country in the EU.

What does this mean for food producers?

For food producers large and small, this trend towards increased regulation requires careful consideration. Some products may become more difficult to sell to retailers and other outlets, as well as to market to consumers. By contrast, demand for healthier products, particularly those with clear nutritional benefits, is likely to increase.

This will require a shift of focus starting at the product development stage. Failing to take note of the changing regulations during product formulation will expose producers to unnecessary risk. They may find their products contain ingredients that are restricted or banned, or that they have unintentionally created a product that is subject to higher taxes and tariffs in certain jurisdictions.

Retailers are also likely to hone in on these issues during purchasing negotiations and may even include specific requirements around health and nutrition in contracts with product providers. They will certainly expect more transparency and detail about product ingredients than in the past.

As for exploiting opportunities, there are different directions that producers might take. The trend towards organic and minimally processed foods will support those offering “back-to-basics” products that are simple and nutritionally valuable. But there will also be demand for more “optimized nutrition,” advanced products that are fortified or include specific ingredients for health reasons. Producers in both camps can thrive.

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