Corporate Public Policy

March 29, 2022

HFSS: A New Food Revolution?

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rows of colourful doughnuts on shelves

Unknown to many outside the food industry, a conference took place in the City of London earlier this month to discuss the “HFSS clampdown”.

The event, hosted by The Grocer, included an appearance by Instinctif Partners’ client Anthony Fletcher of Urban Legend, who led a great session looking at what the HFSS regulations will mean for new product development.

HFSS stands for food products that are high in (saturated) fat, sugar and salt, and refers to new legislation due to come into force from October 1st, limiting how brands promote and advertise those types of items. While it is widely talked about across the industry and causing a real headache for many, most consumers are unaware of what it is.

What does HFSS mean and why does it matter?

Simply put, it means promotions for indulgent foods by store entrances and checkouts or promotions like buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) will no longer be allowed. Meanwhile, brands will not be able to run TV ads that promote non-HFSS-compliant foods before 9pm.

The aim of the legislation is to help tackle the obesity crisis, supporting consumers in making healthier choices as they live and shop by stopping the constant bombardment of ads and promotions for unhealthy foods.

There are lots of implications for HFSS, and outlined below are just a few which I think are important:

  1. It will have a big impact on retailers and manufacturers, essentially stopping them from promoting certain products. They will either have to get creative with how they advertise, hope that consumers will continue to look for and buy their products or they will have to evolve, by making their products healthier and HFSS-compliant.
  2. As such, it could pave the way for mass innovation across the industry, encouraging manufacturers to look at new ways of making “unhealthy” foods. We are already starting to see this, with start-ups like Urban Legend, founded by Anthony, that have been inspired by this challenge. He has created a doughnut range with less than 150 cals and over 50% reduction in fat, saturated fat and sugar. There are lots of other examples too.
  3. The regulations could play a part in prevention of bad health outcomes, by helping consumers change their shopping and eating habits from childhood (think of children nipping into a shop after school for a snack). It aligns with Health Secretary, Sajid Javid’s vision for the NHS, unveiled earlier this month, where he highlighted a focus on avoiding some of the key preventable, long-term illnesses like diabetes.
  4. The cost of living crisis adds a layer of complexity to all of this, with the potential to squeeze lower-income households who often rely on less healthy foods, which are typically less expensive or subject to BOGOF-type promotions. Consequently, there have been rumours about delays to the regulations.

Will HFSS regulation impact reputation?

Obesity is a big public health crisis with which the food industry is indisputably intertwined. Food and drinks companies, like other industries, are facing increasing exposure to public criticism for their handling of big issues impacting society, and their impact on people and the planet.

In a survey by NielsenIQ, over half of consumers (57%) thought brands should be heavily taxed for manufacturing or promoting unhealthy foods. This suggests that the majority of the UK cares about their health and food choices.

Although it is not quite a mainstream conversation, it is only a matter of time before HFSS becomes widely known and the public starts forming critical opinions of retailers and manufacturers who choose not to create healthier alternatives or develop brand new products that are HFSS-compliant.

On the whole, I see HFSS as a much-needed move to drive better quality foods and tackle obesity. It will not fix the crisis by itself, as our interaction with food and drink is influenced by a whole range of factors (education, family, work, mental health, genetics, etc) but it is an important step because it changes how we view obesity and how we tackle it.

It is no longer just a problem for the health industry or the NHS to fix. Nor is the onus on consumers, constantly told to dramatically change their lifestyle in order to be healthy – whether that’s adopting an unrealistic diet or exercise plan, walking 10,000 steps a day or simply having “better will power”. Instead, the regulations are asking the food industry to change.

Of course, we are all responsible for our own bodies to a degree, but we are not helped by the lack of healthy food choices, or the advertisements for unhealthy products, which dominate commercial ad breaks and stores. HFSS regulations shine an important spotlight on the food industry, which is partly responsible for Britain’s weight problem and can help fix it.

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