Healthy sweets could turn sour

Chocolate is good for you. Its principal constituent, cocoa, contains numerous trace elements not easily found in any other single source of nutrition. Among them are polyphenols, which research has demonstrated can help to maintain a healthy heart.

If the above message had been conveyed through the Lancet or Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine it would have created a ripple of surprise, no doubt, but quickly gained public acceptance.

The trouble is, it wasn’t. The facts as stated may be accurate, but they were brought to us by the marketing department of a global confectionery maker. Indeed, Mars is so taken with this research (paid for by itself), that it intends to badge its existing product range, including Mars Bars, with a little Cocoapro logo, highlighting the health benefits of polyphenols.

So? In Mars’ view it is doing no more than adding value to existing products, as any other self-respecting brand steward would do. Margins in the food business are wafer-thin these days and there is heavy pressure on manufacturers to innovate. Mars has not, with the debatable exception of Celebrations, covered itself with glory in this department. But its marketers are far from fools: they know a trend when they see one. In this case, it is called functional food.

Technically, of course, Mars is right when it denies the Cocoapro project is ‘functional’. It is not the result of laboratory synthesis of food ingredients to produce a brand new product. Nor is the research on which the health claims are based particularly novel. Cocoapro is, however, very timely. Its alleged health benefits chime harmoniously with a trend which has seen the emergence of Johnson & Johnson’s cholestrol-reducing margarine, Van den Bergh’s similarly touted Flora pro-activ and Nestlé’s digestion-aiding LC1 dairy range, to name but a few.

While health lobbyists and nutritionists may howl over the ‘irresponsibility’ of Mars in cynically promoting the health content of such a fatty and sugar-laden indulgence product, there is little they can do about it. Regulation of the food industry is notoriously inadequate and confused – in no area more than labelling and packaging.

Because of the difficulty in forcing legislation through ever unwieldier bureaucratic bodies, such as the European Commission and the World Trade Organisation, the tendency has been to fall back on national self-regulation, which in the UK is enforced by underfunded local authorities. To put it mildly, this offers little effective counterweight (other than in the nuisance department) to the increasingly global food companies.

Certainly that cobbled-together tool of political expedience, the Food Standards Agency, is unlikely to make a substantial change to the regulatory climate, other than by complicating it.

Mars and others which have jumped on the functional bandwagon should have a care, however. Today’s ‘scientific findings’ can turn out to be tomorrow’s woeful ignorance, resulting in ruinously expensive lawsuits. As the tobacco companies are finding out.

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