Now, what I want is facts

This is one of my favourite sayings and I quote it often.

Of course when I am working, the facts I am most interested in is the data about products so I can answer when clients ask “Is my range healthy?” and “What should I do to make it healthier?”

Every week it seems that there is a report or an article discussing the impact of obesity and poor diet on people’s health and longevity. There are just as many reports on the causes of obesity and how it should be tackled. As a result food businesses can find prioritising their actions on health almost impossible.

Public Health England (PHE) in particular is focusing on childhood obesity and its plan sets targets for sugar and calorie reduction without increasing saturates and salt (and potentially decreasing them).

“All sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar … achieved through reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.” 

“Sugar reductions should be accompanied by reductions in calories and should not be compensated for by increases in saturated fat. Work to achieve salt targets should continue alongside the sugar reduction programme."  

“To succeed in reducing childhood obesity rates we need to reduce calories from all types of food, not just those that come from sugary products.” 

These reports and the resulting policies and objectives rely on an analysis of data - people’s health credentials and products - so you would think that there are comprehensive databases available to enable researchers and businesses to gather the “facts” and develop the policies and to make recommendations as a result.

However when PHE reported earlier this year on the progress of the Childhood Obesity Action plan it was clear they were limited by a lack of data:

“For all food and drink categories, due to data limitations it has not been possible to report on progress by the out of home sector (e.g. quick service restaurants, takeaway and meal delivery businesses) in the same way as for retailers and manufacturers, or for cakes and morning goods for retailer own brand and manufacturer branded products.”

Is it a general lack of data across the Food Industry and government or is it a case of just not sharing?

When I work with companies who want to make their products healthier I always start with what do they know about their products now?

I can usually get sales and distribution information and sometimes the demographics of the customers – there is a clear commercial need for that information - but a clear nutrient profile of the product can be trickier. What claims are made about it or profiles of the nutrition content of ingredients is very rare and even the most sophisticated business struggles - especially if they have a large and varied range.

The requirement to put nutrition information on pre-packed products has improved data availability, but even when products are fully nutrition labelled, it doesn’t mean the information is in a database that can be interrogated or shared or aligned with other aspects such as the sales.

Some businesses such as out of home are behind the curve in providing information and that makes it hard for the companies who want to change to know where to start.

The more data available that can be reported and analysed within a business then the more accurate picture they have of what needs to change and how that change can be achieved.

Access to data about products can help prioritise actions - whether that is changing a recipe or working with an ingredient supplier to change the recipe of an ingredient that significantly impacts on the final product. It supports technical and commercial decisions about where to go next with NPD or a new supplier.

It is not just about change - access to data about products can also help a business align themselves with government benchmarks or profiling to demonstrate the healthiness of their ranges and so help them protect their reputation as a result. 

Traffic light labelling and the Nutrient profiling model are both used to identify what is “healthy” or “unhealthy”, the latter increasingly being described by NGOs, media and government as “junk food”.

Wouldn’t a business want to know how its products aligned against these profiles? Wouldn’t a business want to know what products could be easily tweaked so they have favourable (green and amber) traffic lights?

If the actions against obesity are to succeed then all food businesses large and small need to understand what contribution their products and menus make to the food consumed by their customers. 

I also believe that where possible that product data should be available to government and researchers so when an article comes out talking about the impact of and cause of obesity we will be reassured that whatever the interpretation or opinions at least we would agree with the data they are based on. 

About Karen

Karen Tonks is the Director of Karen Tonks Consultancy, supporting organisations with customer communications and policy development in the areas of health, wellness and labelling with her industry knowledge and expertise.

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Karen Tonks

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