The food and drink industry has been plagued by an onslaught of negative media coverage in recent months, which is affecting consumer trust and changing the way people make food choices.

Two weeks after a World Health Organisation report linked processed meats with cancer, sales of bacon and sausages dropped by £3m. Meanwhile, prime minister David Cameron said earlier this month that he will not rule out introducing a sugar tax to help tackle Britain’s “obesity crisis”, following pressure from Public Health England and high profile campaigners such as Jamie Oliver. This highlights the magnitude of the situation and the impact it might have on branding. 

Although consumer interest in healthier foods has been growing for some time, Richard Lawrence, head of brand at Weetabix, says “noise around nutritional issues” such as this has “accelerated” the change in buying behaviour.

Indeed, a study by C Space reveals that 38% of UK consumers have altered the way they make food choices over the past year, with 51% of people giving more priority to ‘healthy’ products, 44% proactively looking for ‘fresh’ goods and 42% singling out ‘nutrition’ as an important factor in deciding what to buy. Nearly half (49%) of respondents suggest stories in the press are responsible for their change in attitude.

“Clearly, negative media does have an impact on consumers,” says Lawrence. “Responsible food manufacturers therefore have an obligation to be clear about what we are selling and to describe it in the most meaningful way we can.”

That is all the more important since consumers are not convinced by some of the claims brands make. According to the C Space report, only 55% of UK consumers trust the term ‘wholegrain’ when it is used on packaging and that drops even further for claims of ‘low sugar’ (34%), ‘low salt’ and ‘natural’ (both 39%), and ‘added fibre’ (42%).

Health claims must be supported

“In a market like the UK, it’s really important not to just slap a claim on your packet. It has to be done within the context of the brand to make it believable and trusted,” says Ben Wiseman, consultancy director EMEA at C Space.

‘Natural’, for example, can mean different things to different people, so brands need to articulate why the brand is natural in more than one claim. “That’s where communication and packaging comes into play,” adds Wiseman.

Weetabix relaunched its ‘weetabuddy’ campaign this month to promote healthy eating among children

In line with this thinking, Weetabix has moved away from focusing on just one nutritional aspect, instead opting for “a full package” of health benefits, which Lawrence says does more to “motivate” consumers when making a purchase. For example, the marketing for Weetabix highlights that it is made from 100% natural wholegrain wheat as well as being low in sugar, salt and fat, high in fibre and a source of protein, which he believes delivers a more “compelling proposition”.

The cereal brand relaunched its ‘Weetabuddy’ campaign this month in partnership with children’s TV channel Cartoon Network and is spending £1.7m in January to promote healthy eating among children. Its 2015 iteration of the same campaign achieved a 14% rise in sales volume and a 4% rise in revenue, so it is a message that does resonate.

Lawrence believes consumers are also becoming more aware of categories that used to be perceived as healthy and rejecting them if claims do not stack up.

“Fruit juice is a great example,” he says. “Traditionally, it was a healthy category but it has seen significant decline as consumers have realised it is quite high in sugar. Compare that with something like sweet biscuits, which consumers have always known are unhealthy, and there’s not been quite the same backlash.”

Make choices clear

In order to help consumers make healthier, more informed choices when selecting food and drink products, Public Health England launched the ‘Sugar Smart’ app as part of its £5m Change4Life campaign. The app shows consumers how many sugar cubes are in any product they scan – a small carton of juice drink contains over five cubes, for example – to help educate consumers to proactively cut their sugar intake.

However, Helen Warren-Piper, marketing director, grocery at Premier Foods, is not convinced the app will increase clarity.

“While we support efforts to help consumers make more informed choices about what they eat and drink, we believe that the introduction of these tools might lead to further consumer confusion,” she warns.

“It’s important to keep in mind that sugar content is already clearly labelled on all food and drink products, and many companies, such as Premier Foods, have committed to including front-of-pack traffic light labelling on pack, which signals to consumers whether a product’s sugar levels are low, medium or high.”

The company, which owns the Bisto and Batchelors brands, also runs programmes to reduce salt, calories and sugar in its products, as well as offering portion-controlled product options such as Mr Kipling individually wrapped cake slices.

Actively limiting portion size is one way that brands can help to reduce calorie intake without sacrificing flavour, which is particularly important since 43% of UK consumers suggest that taste is one of the key factors that will increase their trust in food, behind quality (63%).

Sergio Eleuterio, UK & Ireland marketing director at Kraft Heinz, agrees that low-sugar options are especially important to consumers today. However, he warns that taste must remain paramount or consumers could lose confidence in the original brand. When developing a version of Heinz Tomato Ketchup with 50% less sugar, he says the key criteria was “to achieve ketchup that does not compromise on taste” before focusing on “reassuring mums” that the product was a worthwhile alternative to the original.

Value sales of the reduced sugar option increased 43.9% in the last 12 weeks to 5 December, according to Nielsen data, which again illustrates the rise in popularity of healthier options. The product now has a 3.7% share of the category, compared to 81.7% for the original ketchup.

The media noise around unhealthy food is unlikely to quieten any time soon; the brands that win shoppers’ trust will be those that clearly communicate health claims while avoiding competing messages.