A sip of soup can be sublime or so salty that you’re tempted to spit it out. A bran muffin can be delicious or so sugar-drenched you lunge for a bitter coffee to wash it down.
The real test when foods disappoint is: What do you do? Complain politely to a restaurant manager? Call the consumer hotline for a manufacturer of packaged foods to, again, politely suggest there’s too much sugar-salt-fat in a product?
Maybe. But do restaurants and food makers listen? Yes, according to a just-released survey from industry group The Consumer Goods Forum. It’s good news for, and about, consumers: Major food and beverage companies worldwide report that they reformulated more than 180,000 products in 2016, cutting sugar and salt most often. Those companies also say they’ve added more whole grains and vitamins to products.
That’s great for consumer health. There’s a debate about how much sugar and salt in your diet is too much, but many health experts — and ordinary diners and shoppers — believe that food scientists and ambitious marketers have tucked too much of both in our food.
But companies don’t reformulate solely because they’re concerned about customers’ health. They do so because customers demand it. People read nutrition labels. They make choices based on dietary advice they’ve heard or read. Think it’s a coincidence that sales of sugary sodas — that trough of yummy but empty calories awaiting deposit on bellies or hips — have dropped for years? Nope. Many consumers have turned to drinks they deem healthier, mainly juices and flavored waters.
“The big consumer companies are responding to competitive pressures,” Peter Freedman, managing director of The Consumer Goods Forum, told Bloomberg News. “The growth in the industry is coming from small startups with product portfolios that have a healthier angle.”
The Consumer Goods Forum survey doesn’t say how much salt and sugar was cut from products, but companies are getting the message. Note that this happens even without heavy-handed Nanny State tactics such as the failed bid by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban oversize sodas. Nor is this change driven mostly by Mega Nanny State tactics such as those of France, which recently decreed that restaurants cannot offer free refills of sodas and other sugar-laden drinks. France also banned vending machines from schools, limited servings of french fries in school cafeterias to once a week and imposed a soda tax. What’s next? A weigh-in before you can order at a Paris McDonald’s?
Government didn’t force all these companies to reformulate. The companies did that to attract or keep consumers.
We’re not fans of government diktats on what Americans should and shouldn’t be allowed to eat. But we are fans of clear, accurate, supersized dietary information on packaged foods and in restaurants.
This type of government-backed info helps Americans decide if they want to risk high blood pressure or other diseases via excessive salt intake. Or if they want to risk diabetes, obesity and so many other health consequences that come with piling on the sugar and unnecessary pounds. Many choose wisely. “The forces of the market are pushing things in the right direction and there will be more to come,” Freedman said. “Products will have less salt, less sugar and fewer calories.”
Sounds good to us. But food isn’t only about calories. Sugar and salt taste good. There’s little virtue in gagging down low- or nonfat products to save a few calories. What’s more, researchers often change their minds about what’s healthy, exonerating long-maligned foods (like eggs) and elevating different villains (trans fats) to the axis of evil.
Here’s the best dietary advice that won’t ever be revised, contradicted or proven false: Deprivation doesn’t work. Nor does gluttony. Instead, indulge in moderation — portion control — when it comes to high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, highly craved delicacies.
So take a bow, savvy food consumers. You don’t need the Nanny State. You’re forcing healthful changes in every sector of the food, beverage and restaurant industries. And if you’re too plump to take that bow, may we suggest a brisk walk?