Marks & Spencer’s nutritionist Claire Hughes talks up the company’s health strategy02 July 2012
Can you tell us about yourself and your career to date?
Oddly, it was doing a degree in parasitology at Glasgow University that got me interested in nutrition, although at that stage my ambition was to do emergency nutrition in developing countries. Then I did an MSC in nutrition at Aberdeen University, followed by two years of research at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health. After that I spent some time away from nutrition in a marketing role promoting Scottish products, before joining Safeway. When Safeway was taken over by Morrisons I moved into health PR for a year and then to Marks & Spencer seven years ago.
What does your role as nutritionist at M&S entail?
Since I first started at M&S as a nutritionist my role has expanded. I now lead our nutrition activity, work together with our brand teams and support our technical team with the wider R&D agenda.
What I do is clearly a long way from emergency nutrition in the third world but in some respects it’s not so dissimilar. The UK faces serious nutritional challenges; the issue might be obesity rather than malnourishment, but it’s still malnutrition. In doing the job I do, I hope to make a difference closer to home. Anyone can write nutritional guidelines – the difficult part is how we translate new science into guidelines that create products with wide appeal to our customers. Our development team are very good at that.
Can you outline M&S’ health strategy?
We’ve delivered against our ‘Plan A’ health commitments and are currently reviewing where we go next, looking much further into the future. We’re working closely with the marketing and product teams to do this as, for me, it has to encompass more than just product solutions and reformulation. It’s about making healthy eating easy for consumers, helping them manage their diets and providing access to credible, scientifically sound information they can use to inform their nutrition decisions.
Our health policies are also aligned to our external commitments. For example, we’ve signed up to the Responsibility Deal to which we have made 17 commitments in areas like alcohol and reformulation.
You have been instrumental in reducing saturated fat and overall fat levels across M&S’ portfolio. What has this involved?
We’ve done a lot of work on fat reduction. A few years ago we switched from vegetable oil to high oleic sunflower oil for cooking our crisps which reduced saturated fat levels by 70%.
We also led a project to reduce the saturated fat levels in milk by changing the diet fed to cows. Unfortunately we weren’t able to promote this on the label as the reductions were less than 30%, so we couldn’t call it ‘reduced fat’ milk but as milk is an everyday product it equated to over 85 tonnes removed from our customers’ diets.
We’ve been doing a lot of work on mayonnaise too. Our first round of reformulation reduced the fat content by 20-30% and now we’re taking it even further.
There is always fat-reduction work going on – it’s built into our NPD programme. But one thing I would say is that there are always going to be recipes that have higher levels of fat, and that is where front-of-pack information and labelling comes in. It’s also about portion sizes – we can make low-fat cakes but they don’t taste that great, so it is more sensible to reduce the portion size. Last year we launched a range of portion-controlled sweet and savoury snacks, all of which have less than 150 kcals per portion. This included Orchard Fruit Strips (117 kcals), Chilli Mini Rice Cakes (90 kcals), Red Berries Cereal Bar (90 kcals) and Extremely Chocolatey Double Chocolate Cake Bar (135 kcals).
How have you achieved these saturated fat reductions?
We use different approaches for different ranges. For low-fat ranges, we might look at functional ingredients such as starches to deliver a creamier mouthfeel, or inulin for a low-fat dairy dessert. However, for mainstream products, consumers are looking for authenticity, so we probably wouldn’t add those types of ingredients. Take, for example, a lasagne which is made according to a traditional recipe as you would make it at home. To reduce the fat content we might look at using leaner cuts of beef or skimmed instead of full cream milk.
Moving onto sodium reduction, presumably you met the FSA’s 2010 targets? If so, what targets are you working towards now?
We met all the 2010 targets apart from those for processed cheese – there are three products we are still working on which are made by an overseas producer. The other product that didn’t meet the FSA target was our canned sweet corn. It contains a tiny bit of salt and if we take it out it doesn’t deliver on quality and taste. We’ve always said that we are committed to salt reduction but won’t do it in a way that compromises taste, quality, safety or the consumer experience.
We’ve already met 60% of our 2012 targets but there are still products such as cooked meats where salt reduction remains challenging because of microbiological safety. Hopefully the research that has been commissioned by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) will throw up some salt reduction solutions that give a clean ingredients list without shortening shelf life.
Earlier this year we launched a new range of bacon with 30% less salt than standard bacon sold in our food halls. The lower-salt bacon contains 1.9% salt compared to standard bacon, which contains 3% salt.
We’ve signed up to the Responsibility Deal on salt as we know that it is an area we need to continue to work on but any further reductions have to be incremental. It doesn’t help that when consumers eat out, the foods they eat are much saltier than those they would buy to eat at home.
How have you achieved these reductions in salt?
We’ve used natural flavours to achieve some of these reductions. There are plenty of salt-reduction ingredients out there but none that tackle the safety issue. For example, it’s easy to find a salt replacer for a product-like bread where the salt is primarily there for taste, but not for products in which salt provides preservation functionality as well as flavour. Again we hope that the BRC/FDF review will uncover new solutions or certainly areas worth researching in the future.
How about sugar reduction?
In the past we’ve done some work on sugar reduction in products such as yoghurts, again through recipe changes rather than adding any additional ingredients. Most recently we have been looking at opportunities for using stevia but we are finding that it has a very particular taste.
Surely M&S, and the food industry as a whole, must be reaching the limits of what can be achieved via reformulation. At the same time, though, the pressure is still on to help consumers eat more healthily. So where next to focus efforts?
A lot of time is spent talking about reformulation – too much in my opinion as it always focuses on individual nutrients in isolation. I think we need to change the foods that people want to buy and focus on reformulating people’s diets. In order to change behaviour we have to develop an understanding of what motivates behaviour.
Let’s also be clear that we are doing this because our customers are asking and expect us to offer more ‘healthier’ foods. People are more interested in health than ever before.
Do you think the Food Information Proposal will help people to make better nutritional choices?
I’m not sure if the Food Information Proposal will help the UK that much. It is great that food information will be mand-atory back-of-pack as there are some countries in Europe where products don’t carry back-of-pack information. However, the UK is leading the rest of Europe and for most businesses the FIR will not take us beyond what we are currently doing at the moment. Also, if you look at studies that have been carried out on labelling schemes, no scheme has proved to be particularly effective. Labelling is one small part of a complicated jigsaw.
‘Enrichment’ is also part of your health strategy. What work have you been doing in this area?
We’ve developed a range called ‘Active Health’ that is a rebrand of our Simply More range. These are everyday essentials that are enriched with beneficial ingredients. For example, vitamin D and selenium are two nutrients that are often lacking in people’s diets, so we’ve developed yoghurts and shot drinks with vitamin D and are selling fresh produce – spinach and potatoes – that has been grown in selenium-sowed soil. We sell salmon that because of its diet contains 3g of omega-3 in one fillet. Our range also includes omega-3 eggs, fibre-enriched products, probiotics and prebiotics.
Have you changed the way any of your ‘enriched’ products are labelled to meet the new EU nutrition and health claims regulation?
Yes of course, for example, some of our products contain plant sterols and for those we have changed the on-pack wording to reflect the approved claim, although the actual wording of the regulation hasn’t yet been agreed. Our customers like messages to be simple, so we don’t always use scientific claims – we’ve got different ways of saying things.
Do you think the regulation is a positive or negative thing for the food industry?
I think the principle of the regulation is absolutely right, but the industry has been let down by the absence of guidelines for companies submitting dossiers at the outset. Companies have had claims rejected because they didn’t know what evidence was needed, which doesn’t seem fair. I’m also concerned that if nutrient profiles are introduced, a lot of the work companies did to get claims on their products will again be under review.
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