Why Mars’s cautionary food labelling can only ever be a ‘short-term fix’

Mars Food, the company behind Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s sauces, is putting advice on some of its products stating that they should only be consumed once a week due to high salt, sugar or fat content. But some fear it only offers a “short term fix” to a deep-rooted problem.

The new initiative will see Mars Food split its products into ‘everyday’ and ‘occasional’ items on its packs and website within the next few months. Products that fall into the occasional category include Dolmio lasagne meal kits, lasagne sauces and Dolmio oven bake kits in macaroni and cheese, carbonara, creamy tomato flavours.

The food giant has also pledged to change product recipes to reduce salt levels by 20% by 2021 and cut the amount of added sugar in some products by 2018. All changes are part of Mars’s global ‘Health and Wellbeing Ambition’ to promote healthier choices.

It told the Daily Mail: “To maintain the authentic nature of the recipe, some Mars Food products are higher in salt, added sugar or fat. As these products are not intended to be eaten daily, Mars food will provide guidance to consumers on-pack and on its website.”

Scepticism remains

While a spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum called the initiative “imaginative”, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) remains unconvinced.

A BRC spokesperson says: “This is an interesting proposal, but obviously we’d need to see the details of how it would work in practice. We believe, however, that in order for any scheme to be truly effective in influencing consumer behaviour, it should be wide-ranging and apply consistently across the whole range of product categories and not just a small few.”

This sentiment was backed up by action group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), which said the news is welcomed but “won’t solve the health problems in the UK”.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of CASH, explains: “Trying to change and influence people’s behaviour is a great yet ambitious idea. Our fast paced society means many people just don’t have the time to cook anymore and with most of the salt in our diet coming from the foods we buy, it’s difficult to fall below the maximum intake of six grams per day.

“Reformulation is the key solution, but while it remains voluntary and without an independent agency closely monitoring progress, many companies are failing to do this.”

Graham MacGregor, chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health

From a branding perspective, Mars has made a sensible first step to promote healthy living. Nick Liddell, director of consulting at branding agency The Clearing, says Mars “probably smelt the coffee” and believed they “either had to say something or it will be said for them”.

“Ten years ago, big food corporations would be sitting in a room with consultants such as myself, focusing on specific meal occasions and discussing how we could get people away from eating healthy foods like apples in favour of their packaged products. So this announcement is definitely a step in the right direction,” he says.

“Unfortunately, salt and sugar are like the crack cocaine of the food and drink industry. It makes their products tastier, so it will take brands a long time to wean consumers and themselves off it.”

Fixing a deep-rooted problem

There are concerns, however, about the longevity of Mars’ health drive. “It may boost the brand for a short while, but it’s a short-term fix for a deeper rooted problem,” says Chris Moody, chief design officer at brand consultancy Wolff Olins.

“Smart brands are really close to their customers. You understand them, listen to them and respond. That might mean that you change your product, offering or service. Just because you acknowledge you’re listening [to the current health agenda] doesn’t mean you’re answering that problem.”

In order to make a bigger impact, innovation is needed to conjure up healthier alternatives.

“While it’s a positive development, it could be so much better for the brand if they were more engaged when it comes to product development,” Moody adds. “That would be worth shouting about, rather than using the honesty of putting a badge on a product and telling people something they probably already know.”

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Comments
  • Luisa Robertson 18 Apr 2016 at 10:10 am

    Personally, I disagree that this is a short term strategy or ‘fix’ from Mars – on the
    contrary I believe it’s showing a longer term outlook on two main counts.
    Firstly in terms of raising awareness that they are reformulating their products – making it known in a very public forum that they are actively looking to reduce the sugar and salt content. At MMR Research working each week to help manufacturers reformulate products, we know that it’s not easy to do this and maintain consumer liking so a quick fix is often not possible.
    Secondly, I think this open and honest approach has potential to increase brand loyalty and engagement – we know these are traits valued by consumers (and millennials in particular).
    It’s a simple message designed to inform and, whilst influence and change in behaviour is the desired outcome, I see this as the starting point to
    engage consumers whilst embarking on a longer term journey. This will
    increase chances of consumers accepting of eventual changes in formulation (and
    the taste of their favourite products changing), because Mars has openly shared
    plans rather than reformulating behind closed doors.

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