A couple of weeks ago, I headed to London for 3 days of feeling all grown up and professional. Food Matters Live is a big event aimed at anyone involved in food – food manufacturers, food scientists, food developers, food writers, nutritionists, dietitians, researchers etc. It has an incredible array of seminars in 9 or 10 rooms covering a huge range of topics. There are numerous businesses, universities, food innovators etc exhibiting their products and ideas. There are workshops and opportunities to have training or exchange expertise. In the centre of it all is a large conference space hosting a mixture of debates, Q&A sessions and presentations. The hardest thing about the Food Matters Live is choosing where you want to be and what area to focus on. Generally, you want to be in at least 2 if not 3 places at the same time.
I attended 2 years ago and it was really interesting to see how the topics and exhibitors had changed, how various things had led to drastic shifts in what manufacturers are producing and how they perceive their consumers wants and expectations have changed.
In 2016, the levy on sugar sweetened beverages had been announced. The talk was all quite negative – that the tax would be felt most by the least wealthy, that the drinks industry were being unfairly singled out, that it would do nothing to affect the rates of obesity which was the basis for instigating the tax, that the consumers would not want to buy less sweet drinks or would not want to see an increase in the use of artificial sweeteners.
In 2018, the story was very different. The amount of revenue was a lot lower than expected due to the level of reformulation that had happened, which is what had been hoped. The drinks industry representative I heard presenting in a conference session was very blasé about the success. He was confident that reformulation had already started before the levy had been announced because consumers were demanding drinks with less sugar. He still felt that the sugar sweetened beverage industry were unfairly singled out and that other drinks sectors should also be targeted. Milk shakes and iced coffees for example can have extremely high sugar contents but are not affected by the levy at the moment. He also felt that drinks that are extremely high in sugar were not encouraged to lower the sugar content and that another band should be added to give incentive to those brands to bring sugar down.
In the last two years I think there has been are real shift in attitudes towards sugar, it has been cast as the bad guy. Yes, most of us could eat less sugar and a chunk of that sugar comes from manufactured foods where sugar could be lowered at no cost to taste or to the properties that sugar provides to the food. However, I think we run the risk of being too focused on one nutrient. I don’t think that sugar alone is the key to tackling obesity and sometimes if you look at the media and various obesity campaigns you would assume that it was. However, this has worked in favour for the reformulation as many more consumers are happier with sugar being reduced in everyday products.
In general, there was much more talk about reformulation with more businesses presenting their solutions to adjusting products to make them better. Exhibitors presenting technology that allows reducing sugar or adding flavour without additives etc – much more than 2 years ago. More discussions on whether similar levies could be used to incentivise manufacturers to improve the nutrition profile of their products. This is more complex for other foods than for sugar sweetened beverages as sugar has a host of properties that affect the texture and colour and shelf life of products, it isn’t just taste. Personally, I feel we need to broaden our focus on improving the nutrient profile rather just sugar. For example, the same Scientific Advisory Committee report on Carbohydrates that highlighted the need for the UK population to be eating less sugar also highlights the need to be eating more fibre. The fibre story has been lost and we could be doing more on this with regard to reformulation. This is just one example of how we could be improving our food aside from removing sugar.
The other difference from 2016 was the prominence of sustainability and environmental issues connected with food. We have seen a huge increase in veganism in the UK in the last 2 years. A lot more people want to be more plant-based in the way they eat. People want better, more sustainable packaging and, of course with big thanks to a small section of an episode of Blue Planet and the legend that is David Attenborough, much less plastic.
BDA launched their One Blue Dot initiative at Food Matters Live, linking sustainable food with eating well. Sustainability includes health and if we opt for a way of eating for environmental reasons that ultimately harms our health it is not ‘sustainable’. Plant based diets can be very balanced, they don’t have to be vegan. There is a danger that someone who wants to eat in a way that is good for the planet can end up with a very restrictive diet which can result in not meeting the body’s nutritional needs. This is where BDA have come in – to show how to combine eating for good health and environmental sustainability can be achieved.
There are many out there advocating a vegan lifestyle that imply that it is easy and that is something that anyone can and should do, that government should be encouraging such a shift etc. Jack Munro was very quick to correct the guys from BOSH, who used her as an example of going plant based, saying that such choice is a privilege and any small thing someone does towards a better environment, be that refuse a straw in a cafe, have one vegetarian meal, use up some leftovers etc is worth doing.
The third big shift was the whole gut health phenomenon and the numbers of producers of Kefir, Kombucha and Kimchee was quite something. The interest in this area of health and the microbiome has grown hugely in the last 2 years. It is still an area where research is lacking for many of the claims that are bouncing around but it is an area to keep an eye on.
I remember in 2016 playing nutribollocks bingo, there was so much of it about. This year there was still evidence of flouting of nutrition and health claims legislation. It was good to see that there were some Table Talk sessions where nutritionists with expertise in this area were meeting with manufacturers. There is so much fake nutrition information out there on social media with lots of very questionable products being marketed making claims that are not evidence based and in breach of health claims legislation, it was good to see Food Matters Live create an opportunity for innovators of food products to meet with professionals in nutrition and health claims.
This just scrapes the surface of the event. I think there are a few more posts in me from my trip. It is just finding the time to sit and write!