The future of food: opportunities to improve health through reformulation
Many of us live in environments where the food that is most readily available is unhealthy. One way we can change this is by reducing the calorie density of the food we eat through reformulation. Calorie density is the number of calories per gram of food, with higher calorie-dense food providing more energy in smaller quantities than less calorie-dense food. This is particularly appealing as these changes are often imperceivable and don’t require individual-level behaviour change. Reformulating foods means using new ingredients, changing recipes or adapting manufacturing processes to reduce their calorie density.
Our report uncovers the food categories that could be promising targets for reformulation and identifies the main barriers and opportunities of reformulation for industry and policymakers. We conducted mixed methods research that included interviews with industry and public health stakeholders alongside analysis of in-home food and drink purchases for over 29,000 households in Great Britain.
We found that it could be possible to remove 38 calories per person, per day (the equivalent of 1 billion calories across the whole UK population) from diets if the food categories that contribute most to calorie consumption were reformulated to reduce their calorie content by 10%.
To achieve the greatest impact with reformulation, we have made four recommendations.
- Government to set mandated calorie reduction targets for specific food categories that contribute most to excess calorie consumption, alongside incentives like R&D credits;
- An institution to lead the reformulation efforts, with statutory powers to design, set and monitor targets for calorie reduction by manufacturers and shops, with powers to levy fines where targets aren’t met;
- Statutory data collection of sales from all retailers, including leading supermarkets, to inform a public ranking of shops on progress in making food categories healthier, as well as provide consumers with more information on which supermarkets are healthiest;
- Industry to reformulate main products rather than creating two tiers of products where one is the healthier alternative.
Our data analysis – what we did
In this stage of our reformulation work we have focused on the retail sector, understanding what households purchase and which foods contribute most to overall calorie consumption. Next, we will:
- explore food consumption within the out of home sector to understand the impact this is having on calories consumed and identify opportunities to make it easier for consumers to access healthier options
- collaborate with policymakers to further develop the identified policy options and explore how they could be implemented to maximise real-world impact
- partner with industry to trial new ways to leverage reformulation to meet industry ambitions to improve health, whilst building out the evidence base.