In recent years, there’s been a growing emphasis on helping people to bridge the gap between dietary intakes and dietary recommendations, to promote healthier eating habits and combat the rising tide of diet-related diseases.

Central to this effort is food reformulation — a process by which manufacturers adjust the recipes of their products to improve the nutritional profile. This includes reducing salt, sugar, or saturated fats, boosting essential nutrients that we’re generally deficient in across the UK (such as fibre), or adding more fruit and vegetables.

Companies will also adapt their recipes for reasons relating to cost of ingredients, regulations, or sustainability issues, or in response to emerging market trends. But in all cases, the changing needs and tastes of consumers are at the forefront of decisions.

As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, the food and drink industry contributes £38 billion into the economy, and employs around half a million people. It’s an industry that is constantly evolving and innovating.

Innovation in the food and drink sector

Through investing in innovation, the food and drink sector has enabled more than 10,000 new food and drinks products to be introduced onto the UK market, in just the past three years.

“Innovation is absolutely critical for our companies, whether that’s looking at sustainability and net zero issues, or looking at the food we produce to make it that little bit healthier, and help people as they make their food choices,” explains Kate Halliwell, Chief Scientific Officer at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), a membership body which represents this sector.

Kate Halliwell, Chief Scientific Officer at the Food and Drink Federation.

“Reformulation is a really important part of what a food company can do to help improve the health of people’s diets. In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been an incredible amount of reformulation going on.

“We’re an industry that’s constantly innovating. One of the big drivers of that is to improve the health profile through reformulation; so reducing sugar or salt, or increasing fibre content. And this is happening across every aisle of the supermarket,” says Kate.

The role of fibre in our global health crisis

From breakfast cereals and biscuits, to cakes and sweets, to yoghurts and pizzas, changes and innovations are taking place all the time within our favourite foods. And for each product type, a different, unique approach might be taken.

Across the board, however, companies are looking to increase the nutritional content of the food they’re producing, with fibre being a key focus.

Fibre is an essential nutrient for maintaining good health; it plays a major role in aiding digestion, maintaining bowel health, and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Fibre-rich foods tend to be more filling and satisfying, too, which can help reduce overall calorie intake and promote weight management. However, most people in the UK aren’t getting enough of it in their diet.

Foods high in fibre: Beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and many fruits and vegetables.

Low fibre consumption is a growing concern, with studies showing that a significant portion of the UK population falls short of the recommended intake of 30 grams per day (for an adult). Recent data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey indicates that UK adults are consuming around 20 grams of fibre per day on average. Research also shows socio-economic disparities exist, with lower intakes in the lowest income quintile compared to the highest, in all age groups and in both sexes.

Our low fibre intake is largely attributed to low consumption of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and pulses. It is challenging for consumers to reach the dietary recommendation for fibre – so industry can play an important role in increasing fibre in commonly consumed foods to help people bridge this gap.

“In the UK, we simply don’t eat enough fibre, so we’ve worked with 25 brands so far to try and make it easier for people to have a higher fibre diet,” explains Kate.

“There are two ways companies are doing that; firstly, by introducing more products that are higher in fibre — so, the ones you might expect; like breakfast cereals and bread. But also, in food types you might not expect; like introducing a higher-fibre pizza, for example.”

“Secondly, companies are making it clearer for people, as they’re walking around the supermarket, to find those higher fibre products – putting it on the front of the pack or on the label, so it’s really clear what those high fibre products are.”

Action on Fibre project

The FDF have launched an initiative called Action on Fibre, which is focused on increasing the fibre content of popular foods and family favourites like pizza, breakfast cereals, ready meals and breads to help people bridge the gap between fibre intake and dietary recommendations​.

“After the first year of that programme, which is still ongoing, 7.2 billion more servings of fibre have been delivered to the population – equivalent to 7.8 billion slices of wholemeal bread,” says Kate.

While food reformulation is one approach to improving the health of our diets, other strategies are in play too, such as ensuring nutritional information is clear; and offering different portion sizes — for example, smaller sized chocolate bars and sweet treats. More broadly, it’s also about educating and encouraging people to eat a balanced diet, to consider the quantity and frequency with which they eat certain foods, and to include whole grain options, fruits and vegetables.

Clear labelling and transparency

Food product labels and ingredients lists can be confusing for consumers.

“There’s a lot of information on a label, and most of that is regulated”, she says. “How to set out a label, the nutrition declaration that you’d have to make; those pieces of information are set out in law; so every company is going to provide those. A lot of companies will try and translate that and have simpler messages alongside those to help consumers really understand the food product when they’re making choices.”

Efforts are ongoing throughout the industry to help consumers interpret food product labels and ingredient lists.

While food reformulation holds great promise for improving public health, ensuring transparency and clear labelling is essential to empower consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat.

The ‘traffic light’ labelling system, a voluntary initiative that was widely adopted in the UK from 2005, uses colour-coded labels to indicate the levels of key nutrients (such as fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt) in a food product. In addition, many food manufacturers now provide calorie details, and simplified nutritional information, such as per-serving or per-portion data, making it easier for shoppers to understand the nutritional content of a food product relative to their recommended daily intake.

Reformulation: A complex balancing act

Reformulation is a complicated process, where multiple, and sometimes conflicting needs come into play. So, how do companies manage competing priorities?

“When you’re looking to change a product, you need to take all aspects into account; how does it taste, what’s the texture like, what’s the shelf life; is it going to be safe, still, to eat? That’s why we employ experts to consider all of that,” explains Kate.

“We use food scientists, food technologists, nutritionists; and draw on the latest science. It all goes into making sure that at the end of the day, people still have tasty food to eat.”

Supporting small business

The FDF is an industry-wide organisation which helps its members navigate the complex and fast evolving policy landscape and works to support a vast and diverse range of food companies in their reformulation efforts —including smaller companies that don’t have access to the same resources and expertise as big multinationals.

The FDF receives funding by the Scottish government specifically to reach out to smaller companies that might need extra support and advice, and access to expertise. Over the course of five years, the program has reached hundreds of businesses, and it’s something Kate and her colleagues at the FDF would like to see rolled out across other governments within the UK.

Food reformulation has the potential to have a significant impact on public health at the population level. By reducing the levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats in commonly consumed foods, and boosting important nutrients, reformulated products can contribute to lower rates of chronic diseases and improve overall health outcomes across the population.

ITN Business’ Food & Drink programme: Launching 25th March

ITN Business will be delving deeper into this sector, and exploring how innovative solutions are shaping the way we eat, in upcoming programme, ‘Food & Drink: Powers Our Nation’.

Launching at the IFE, International Food & Drink event, which runs from 25th to 27th March 2024 at the ExCel London, the programme will showcase food system innovations, and explore solutions to the biggest global pressures facing the food and drink manufacturing sector.