For people concerned about public health, it’s fashionable to lay the responsibility for our problems at the doorstep of the food industry, which like any other industry must demonstrate growth every quarter. That means selling more packaged food, which is generally high in sugar, salt, and fat to make it more “craveable,” to use an industry term, or “addictive,” to use the critics’.
Could the food industry engage in, as the public-health community would put it, “harm reduction”? Certainly, big industry has the technical and marketing expertise to do so—skills that far surpass those of any farmer, produce consortium, or artisanal business. And in fact, large food companies such as PepsiCo and Wal-Mart, the largest grocer in the United States and contractor to many factories that produce its private-label food lines, have started talking about producing and selling healthier foods. To varying extents, they’re actually doing it. Such changes come as companies keep a weather eye on the flattening sales of full-sugar soda and the steady declines at McDonald’s, while trying to stay a half-step ahead of possible government regulation.
The trick for a large company is to make meaningful change in the healthfulness of the food it produces—not just in a few specialty fruit juices, but across the range of its products—and to do it without scaring off buyers. The question is always what will happen if customers don’t like “better-for-you” alternatives. PepsiCo, which said in 2008 that it expected its proportion of revenue from what it called “nutrition” products to double by 2020, has seen the level stubbornly stay at 20 percent of total sales.
The world’s largest food company by revenue, Nestlé is famous for Crunch and Kit Kat bars and owns dozens of food brands not particularly noted for their nutritional value. In 2005, looking closely at a series of recommendations from the World Health Organization (headquartered in Geneva, an hour from the Nestlé world headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland), it branded itself as a nutrition, health, and wellness company; it later implemented an initiative to reduce sugar, sodium, and saturated fat across its entire product line by the end of 2016. In 2014 alone, it claimed to have reformulated—“renovated,” in its own parlance—10,812 of the products that its 2,000 separate brands made in more than 442 factories in 86 countries.
I first visited the Nestlé Research Center, just outside Lausanne, Switzerland, three years ago. In airy white campus-like buildings that house offices and, mostly, laboratories, more than 600 people, 250 of whom earned PhDs in more than 50 countries, collaborate with more than 50 universities to conduct research into food composition, physiology, taste perception, and health. I was shown skull-shaped helmets covered with electrodes to measure which parts of the brain most strongly registered concentrations of salt and sugar and hotel-like accommodations where people would stay for a few days eating controlled diets. On a second visit, in March, I was given a tablet of plain and then citrus-flavored chocolate and told to chew while my mouth and nose were hooked up to tubes that measured which flavor components I started exhaling first (the citrus spiked fast).
But it wasn’t until my recent visit that I heard about the “Nestlé Nutritional Foundation”—not the charitable feel-good arm it sounds like but a way to improve its products’ nutritional value. In 2013, Nestlé began talking with the scientific community about its nutritional goals, seeking reaction to its newly calculated target levels of sodium, sugar, saturated fat, iron, and vitamins, among other ingredients. Those WHO-influenced targets included a commitment to reduce the average sugar and sodium content in all Nestlé products by 10 percent between 2014 and 2016. Most of the company’s efforts fall under the industry term “stealth health,” meaning changes that make food more nutritious without necessarily being promoted that way. This approach means not talking about improvements that consumers will read as providing less flavor and value for their money: people might be put off by claims like “lower fat” and “less salt” in pizzas or “less sugar” in chocolate bars.
Packaging is one form of stealth. Nestlé is reducing the size of Kit Kat bars to bring down the calories and fat in each portion. (Some say that making portion sizes smaller is also a way to charge the same amount of money for less food.) In Canada, Nestlé has divided its small boxes of Smarties, small colored discs of chocolate, into three compartments, to make it plainly visible that the box contains three servings—in contrast to the typical approach of displaying low per-serving calorie counts on products even though consumers often eat the whole package at one time. More changes to “confectionery” include a recent pledge to remove all artificial dyes and colorings from candy in the United States—a change that can leave products duller-looking (beet coloring for strawberry Nesquik, rather than Pepto-Bismol pink) but also reassure parents. The search to find substitutes began in response to consumer demand, the company says, but there was government pressure too: the United Kingdom and the European Union regulate artificial colorings in candy. The United States doesn’t have a parallel ban, but Nestlé could get ahead of one here by using the changes it tested in England. Most of the changes in the Nutritional Foundation guidelines are being made ahead of possible government regulation.
Changing recipes is harder, of course, than changing packaging or even colorings. Reducing some ingredients, like sugar, is relatively straightforward. “Renovating” Nesquik meant finding bulking agents like cocoa powder, its main substitute for sugar, to give consumers the same flavor and texture. This meant adjusting other flavors, like vanillin. It also meant using a technique that has worked for some but not all companies when cutting sodium: successive stepwise reductions so that consumers hardly perceive a change or can’t tell at all. And it meant borrowing technology from other Nestlé products—in this case, aerating the powder to give it the appearance of bulk using the process for Aero, a popular chocolate bar in Europe that has hundreds of tiny bubbles, like a more sophisticated Crunch bar. The average sugar content in one portion of Nesquik was 17.2 grams in 2000; in 2014, it was 10.6 grams, a 38 percent reduction. By changing just Nesquik, Nestlé has reduced its use of sugar worldwide by more than a million kilograms since 2014, according to Jörg Spieldenner, head of public health nutrition for Nestlé, and colleagues who had worked on its reformulation.
Sodium is more difficult to replace than sugar, and consumers can be stubborn in their liking for fat. Pizza, one of the packaged foods most frequently marketed to children, is high in both. Taking out sodium and adding herbs, spices, and vegetables to give people the flavor they want turned out to be easier in the case of Nestlé’s upscale pizza line, California Pizza Kitchen, than its lower-priced brand, DiGiorno. For CPK, Nestlé increased the size of the tomato slices, added herbs to the sauce in place of sodium, and used smaller amounts of more-aged cheese to give people the idea of the same sharp flavor. The results reduced sodium by 20 percent.
But sodium often has a structural function, not just flavor, and in those cases it’s trickier to reduce. Forms of sodium found in baking powder rather than table salt, for instance, put the rise in DiGiorno “Rising Crust” pizzas. Nestlé didn’t try to find another leavening agent: it found a way to use a simpler form of sodium, bicarbonate (baking soda), and less of it, by using enzymes to change the strength of the dough—that is, the protein content, which affects the amount of time a dough needs to rise and the amount of leavening it requires.
For the thick blanket of cheese that Nestlé technicians from other countries say is a peculiarly American habit that customers don’t want to break, Nestlé is borrowing techniques from other divisions. It not only works with cheesemakers to increase aging time to sharpen the taste but also uses emulsifying techniques from its sauce products and an aeration technique from its Dreyer’s ice cream plants, both of which can reduce calories while providing similar feelings of texture and satiety (and, some would say, let manufacturers charge more for air).
Many, many smaller and boutique companies are staking their new product lines on claims of fresher, less-processed, lower-calorie food, of course. But it is the often quiet changes made at big companies that can have more of an effect on people’s health.
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