Stealth reformulation of private label food can cut calories, study finds

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‘Silent' product reformulation, where own-brand food products are modified without explicitly making the consumer aware, may be effective in reducing calorie consumption, say Danish researchers.

Product reformulations involve 'marginal' changes to recipes. Here researchers found it contributed to lowering population calorie intake. However, retailers suffered moderate losses in sales revenues.

“Silent product reformulation may not achieve dramatic reductions in the population's calorie intake,” said professor Jørgen Dejgaard Jensen, study lead author. “But there seems to be little doubt that it can reduce calorie intake, and that it can do so at a relatively low cost."

The product reformulations featured in the study were minimal with a focus on maintaining the product’s original taste and appearance.

However, according to professor Jensen, the introduction of larger recipe changes might promote more significant behavioural adjustments.

“Previous research has indicated that through a sequence of such marginal product reformulations, it may be possible to undertake more substantial changes in food products' nutritional characteristics, and still maintain consumers' acceptance of the products."

Reformulation roadmap

Food makers’ progress in reformulating products to lower sugar, fat and salt content has been an initiative that has had mixed success.

Last year, the food industry agreed to work with EU member states to make Europe’s food supply healthier through a voluntary reformulation plan launched by the Dutch presidency.

The plan, entitled ‘Roadmap for Action on Food Product Improvement’ includes commitments to reduce levels of salt, saturated fats and added sugars with a deadline set for 31 December 2020.

More joy has been found with private label brand reformulation. In the UK, the major supermarkets have been leading the way with Tesco and Asda revising its private label ranges to cut salt, fat and calorie count as far back as 2006.

Similarly, Marks & Spencer's changes to its food range include its decision to remove all artificial flavorings, colourings and trans fats from its chilled ready meals in 2005.

More recently, the Netherlands’ biggest retailer, Albert Heijn, has cut the sugar content in its private label products by between 10 to 40%, introducing a colour-coded branding system for its soft drinks.

REMA1000 supermarket

In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, professor Jensen’s work involved gathering data from a silent reformulation of eight products between March 2013 and 2014.

These foods included own-brand mayonnaise, fruit yoghurt, pumpkin seed rye bread, toasting buns, yoghurt bread, carrot buns, whole-grain rolls, and chocolate muesli.

These products are produced and sold by Danish retailers REMA 1000, a multinational supermarket chain owned by the Reitan Group.

Nutrition fact labels on these products were updated to reflect the changes, which were not announced to customers.

Data insights

Results revealed that product reformulation was attributed to a reduction in the sale of calories from each product categories - between 0.5 and 8.2%.

However, for the majority of products, such indirect substitution effects were outweighed by the positive effect of the reformulation.

In a number of instances, the reformulation led to some consumers switching to other brands.

Some customers swapped reformulated rye bread and chocolate cereal for higher-calorie alternatives, which undermined the calorie-reducing effect of the reformulation for the product categories 'chocolate muesli' and 'bread'.

However, in the majority of cases, these substitutions were overshadowed by reformulated product sales, leading to overall reductions in calorie sales between −3.1 and 7.5%.

Considering all product reformulation sales, the actions resulted in either a positive, zero or very moderate negative effects on the sales value of the reformulated product and its category.

“Food product reformulation is considered to be one among several measures to combat the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity,” professor Jensen said.

“Food manufacturers are continuously developing and marketing new 'low-calorie', 'low-fat' or 'low-sugar' varieties of processed food products.

“However, the health promotion potential of more 'silent' product reformulation has been largely ignored in research. Our findings suggest that silent reformulation of own-brand products can be effective in reducing calorie consumption by consumers."

Source: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity

Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0559-y

“Reducing calorie sales from supermarkets – ‘silent’ reformulation of retailer-brand food products.”

Authors: Jørgen Dejgård Jensen and Iben Sommer

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