It took several hundred loaves of bread, a tonne of ostrich meat and 1,500 chefs to prepare. But Iran’s attempt to make the world’s largest ostrich sandwich wasn’t just to notch up an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. The monster snack was also created to raise the profile of healthy eating - given ostrich meat’s reputation as a low-fat, low-cholesterol alternative to chicken.

While a 1.5km-long sandwich isn’t recommended for dieters, it’s testament to the profile sandwiches have in the health arena - or rather, could have. In the year to February 2008, sales of ’healthy’ sandwiches dropped by 1%, in volume and value (TNS Worldpanel). Meanwhile, premium products - deemed ’less healthy’ in the report - were up by 1%.

This is in contrast to the increasing focus on healthy eating among shoppers: back in 1995, 11% were looking for healthy foods, whereas today it stands at double that level. That focus reaches its peak in January, when everyone attempts to make amends for the excesses of Christmas.

== Reinventing the ’healthy’ sandwich ==

So, other than steering well clear of turkey as a filling, what can the sandwich-makers do to tap into that January health drive, and revive sales? "The problem with sandwiches is that, to the health-conscious, the bit on the outside is usually viewed with as much disdain as the bit on the inside," explains Don Williams, director of branding and marketing experts, Pi Global. "If the ’healthy sandwich’ market is to compete effectively with everything else on offer, then it needs to re-invent itself with more engaging, tasty, adventurous, choices, perhaps using breads that aren’t the ubiquitous British sliced style."

The variety of breads used in today’s sandwich market is higher than ever, with wraps, ciabattas, wholegrain and wedges all offering options to a choice-hungry public. But it seems the bread element is a missed opportunity for the healthy sandwich.

"It’s still just seen as a carrier," says Gary Gibbs, head of product development at British Bakels. "We need to go beyond that and see bread as an opportunity to improve a sandwich’s health credentials."

As Gibbs points out, the sandwich market lags behind the bread market when it comes to making the most of its health benefits. "In the main, bread is the healthy part of the sandwich and the industry is missing a trick. Omega 3, low GI and whole grain all represent opportunities that are currently being overlooked," he adds.

== Multiseed approach ==

The Bread Roll Company has managed to tap into this, with the launch of two multiseed products last January: multiseed paninis and multiseed bloomers. Two of the company’s best-sellers are also multi-grain rolls: a multigrain sub roll and a multigrain square roll.

"The multigrain square roll contains not only high-fibre malted wheat flakes and rye flour, but is also packed with healthy seeds such as linseed, millet, poppyseed, pearl barley and sunflower seeds," says commercial director Sue Ville. "The multigrain sub is a less rich version of this recipe for customers looking for a lighter multiseed option."

Adding variety to bread is one option. But there are also opportunities to take things out. Though the number of people who think they have one intolerance or another far outweighs the number who actually do, more and more people are buying ’free-from’ foods.

Fresh! Naturally Organic’s founder and CEO Chantelle Ludski admits that some see this as a fad. But the bottom line is that it "sells well in January". And that’s in spite of it not always looking nice, or being to everyone’s taste. "Some say gluten-free tastes a little like cardboard and the bread doesn’t rise so well either," she says. "These breads could certainly do with some more work."

== Salt removal ==

Much of the work has, instead, been focused on removing something else from breads - salt. This has helped many manufacturers already meet the 2010 Food Standards Agency’s target for salt reductions. Indeed, the fact that so much salt has been removed from bread has given sandwich-makers some flexibility in terms of fillings.

The new targets proposed for 2012 are a different story, however, with bacon and ham under threat, according to Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association. Consumer choice will also be restricted, he adds, and there’s the risk that sandwiches will lose their taste. This is not a foreign conundrum for the makers of healthy sandwich ranges, which have historically been branded as ’bland’.

According to Pi Global’s Williams, the independents could learn a lot from the supermarkets, which have been "far more convincing in acknowledging consumers’ quest for taste as well as health - at a reasonable price point". He highlights Tesco, which, with its ’Fresh in the City’ range for London, is tackling the idea that own-label pre-packed sandwiches are unhealthy and of poorer quality. "The branded sector has not tackled the marketing of the ’healthy sandwich’ convincingly," he adds. "There’s an opportunity for someone to shake this category up."

One company heading in the right direction is Fresh! Naturally Organic, with its ranges concentrating on taste and presentation first, and organic second. The argument over whether organic food is healthier will rumble on for some time to come, but looking good and tasting great are prerequisites for any healthy sandwich nowadays.

Ludski admits that sandwiches are "probably not promoted enough as healthy". Though there’s year-round relevance to eating healthily, January offers great opportunities, which is why the company always launches a detox sandwich that month which, says Ludski, "always performs brilliantly".

== Special offers ==

For the smaller shops, a daily or weekly special is an effective tool, according to some experts. A ’special’ ingredient such as sun-blushed tomatoes or rocket can be selected in a variety of fillings for that day or week. Using fresh, raw or grilled vegetables can help add texture, flavour and colour. Presentation is often forgotten.

"It’s depressing how some sandwich bars just have the same five containers day-in day-out," says Steve Pearce, MD at Southover Food Company. "Everyone needs to look seriously at the trends for provenance, health and presentation."

This is where Pret A Manger has done a "fantastic job", he says. The chain is certainly held in high regard by many in the industry - perhaps given its different take on healthy eating. There is no nutritional guidance on the packs, but a free leaflet is available for the entire range. Its recent ’eat with your head’ campaign is not about points and low fat, but about sensible eating and balance.

It offers a ’Slim Pret’ range, but these are not half the fat or calories, they are simply half the sandwich at half the price. It offers customers choice, so they can mix and match as opposed to halving the pleasure for those trying to lose weight.

The Slim Pret range was initially launched in Hong Kong, where smaller portions are popular. Here, it’s a different story. Katy Carver, Weight Watchers brand manager for Greencore, suggests that’s why Slim Pret "doesn’t do a job" for slimmers, because it leaves them feeling hungry. Hence, Weight Watchers has gone in the opposite direction. Its triple wedge range keeps within the points plan and is now a "best seller", she says. There’s also a new triple wrap on its way in time for the January health drive.

While a sweet chilli chicken filling is not quite up there with what the Iranians achieved, it shows that a healthy sandwich does not have to be small and boring.


=== Smaller wallets and smaller waists ===

Post-Christmas shoppers will have expanded their waists, but shrunk their wallets and healthy options can be the most effective way to get them to part with cash. Here are a few tips from the experts:

l Healthy specials can be a good marketing tool in January

l Wraps aren’t necessarily healthier, but shoppers perceive them to be, so are a good January choice

l Free-from options will also be popular (ie free-from wheat or dairy)

l Detox options will be highly sought-after, so look to use ’superfoods’ to add value

l Try experimenting with spices to add flavour. Moroccan and Tunisian could become more popular in the coming months

l Ditch the mayonnaise and replace it with crème fra&icircche

l Steamed chicken, thinly sliced, can be a cheap and healthy filling - and most importantly in January, it’s not turkey

l Maintain choice. What customers say and what they do are different. Some will still want the BLT, so try adding a healthy twist to ’unhealthy’ favourites