Bread has been with us since ancient times, but never before has the whole industry been under such scrutiny from consumers concerned with their weight and health. Ancient Britons would probably have given Sid the Slug short shrift, but nowadays, the baking industry cannot afford to turn its back on calls to lower levels of salt and saturated fat and to help people make healthier choices.
Recently, the National Consumer Council looked at the nutritional information available to customers of seven leading takeaway restaurant chains, including burger and pizza chains. The research also looked at whether healthier options were available to customers who wanted them. We found that anyone looking to find out exactly what they are eating before they order their meal in these restaurants is likely to be unlucky. Only Burger King offered nutritional information on a leaflet available in store. The others had information on their website or on tray-liners, which came with the food, but nothing was available in-store before the order was made. Agonisingly, we did find that some healthier meal options were on offer, making it all the more frustrating why easy-to-use nutrition information was not more widely available.
We’ve no plans to carry out a similar exercise in high street cafés or bakeries, but if we did, I would anticipate we would find similar results. My question is why? With the growing interest in healthy eating, a company could really steal a march on its competitors by offering bread, pas- tries, sandwiches and cakes low in fat or salt and then communicating this to its customers. I know that the baking and sandwich industries have tried healthier options before, but seem to drop them quickly, when perseverance could pay dividends.
Reformulation of bakery goods to lower levels of saturated fat and salt will throw up technological challenges, but it is achievable. Indeed, the Food Standard Agency’s work with industry is already showing results, with overall salt levels falling, due in part to the good work carried out on salt reduction by the industry. Reductions in the saturated fat content of pastry products may also be challenging, but not all pastries have the same level of saturated fat, gram for gram, and it is often difficult for consumers to make the healthier choice. Like many others, I cannot help myself when faced with a selection of pastries on a breakfast tray, but it would be nice to have the information to choose a lower saturated fat version of my favourite pastries if I wanted it.
We feel that, in order for consumers to choose a healthier diet, they at least need to be given the facts about what is in their food. Clearer nutritional information for people eating out of the home is firmly on the political agenda. Chain restaurants in Manhattan are now obliged to provide nutritional information on menus. It is one of the points raised in the government’s recent healthy weight strategy and was highlighted by new Food Standards Agency (FSA) chief executive, Tim Smith.
Supermarkets have already put a lot of time and effort into front-of-pack labelling, so shoppers can tell at a glance what they are buying. The pressure is now mounting on cafés, sandwich shops and places offering out-of-home snacks to think about what they can do to make sure customers have easy-to-understand nutritional infor- mation to hand.
I appreciate that some of these things are easy to say, but less easy to do. However, rising obesity rates have led to a sea change in perception by government, media and consumers. Any competitive company looking to get ahead should not ignore the call for healthier products and better labelling.