Forcing consumers to eat more healthily could result in a backlash, with consu-mers rejecting foods where substantial cuts in salt and fat content have been made or where recipe formulation is perceived to have had an unacceptable impact on flavour.

That is the conclusion drawn by The British Sandwich Association in a report released in time for British Sandwich Week, running from May 14 to 20. Attempts to force consumers towards a healthier lifestyle too quickly are likely to fail, it says, as consumers reject foods with lower flavour in favour of less healthy alternatives.

In the broad scheme of the convenience market, sandwiches are one of the healthiest choices, it adds and says: “There is growing evidence that, by trying to force people to change their diets too quickly and without taking the full picture into account, government agencies are simply chasing them towards less healthy choices. The benefits of the nutritional value of a sandwich generally outweigh the negative effects of salt and fat intake, especially when you look at the kind of food consumers choose as an alternative.”

Bland flavours

To illustrate the problem, the association claims that complaints have increased about the blandness of some sandwiches and ready meals where salt has been reduced substantially.

Data collected at point of sale also shows that there has been an 11.7% reduction in the value of the low-fat/low-calorie/low-salt segment of the market, against a 15.1% increase in the premium sector, where reductions have not been made, according to the association.

“The fact is that it takes time for consumer palates to adapt to changes,” says Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association. “There is no point in setting unrealistic

targets for the food industry to achieve if consumers simply transfer their loyalty to less healthy alternatives.”

The British Sandwich Association also declares itself particularly concerned that government bodies, such as The Food Standards Agency, sometimes appear to pay too much heed to small and unrepresentative consumer lobby groups at the expense of solid evidence from consumers. “Unfortunately the food industry is always painted as being the ogre of the piece, particularly by some consumer groups,” adds Mr Winship.

“But the fact is that the industry depends wholly on the support of its consumers to survive and spends millions every year on research to monitor the habits and trends of those buying products so that it can get this right. Every year some 20 million people walk into retailer outlets and buy two billion sandwiches; what they buy is probably a better barometer than anything of current consumer attitudes.”

Sandwich makers have no issue with encouraging consumers to eat more healthily by reducing the fat and salt levels in sandwiches. “But this should be achieved at a pace that is realistic,” says Mr Winship. “There is no quick fix.”

Change will come about, he says, through a process of educating consumers as well as reducing salt and fat levels at a pace that people’s palates can cope with and by working with groups such as doctors to get the message over to those most at risk from being overweight.

While sandwiches are now one of the main meal occasions in the day for most people, and the industry is committed to achieving an average salt level of below 2g per serving by a steady process of reduction, some sandwiches will never achieve this goal as their ingredients are naturally high in salt and fat. “The traditional bacon butty, for example, is always likely to be higher in salt content than the average sandwich,” points out Mr Winship.

The British Sandwich Association employs market researchers to gather data from some 5,000 consumers every week about their sandwich purchases. “We are very happy to share some of this information with the Food Standards Agency and work with

them to achieve long-term solutions,” says Mr Winship.

Sensible approach

“We need to work together to achieve change,” he adds. “While everyone’s views should be heard, sense should dictate the pace of change and we should all pay heed to what the consumer is actually saying.

“Failure to do this not only means that consumers will reject all our efforts, but everyone will lose. Not only will the government agencies lose face if their goals are not achieved, but food suppliers will find themselves in the awkward situation of being sandwiched between complying with the goals and the commercial realities of consumers voting with their feet. This is not what any of us wants.”