The Nestlé-General Mills 50:50 joint venture company has pledged to reformulate 20 Nestlé brands popular with children and teenagers, including Nesquik, Chocapic, Honey Cheerios and Golden Grahams, by 2015.
It has vowed to cut sugar content to 9g or less per serving and reduce sodium to 135mg or less.
Honey Cheerios and Chocapic currently contain 10.5g and 10.8g of sugar per 30g serving respectively, Nesquik is just over at 9.1g while Golden Grahams is already below the threshold at 8.9g. Chocapic already contains less sodium than pledged at 100mg per serving but Honey Cheerios contains 330mg, Golden Grahams 500mg and Nesquik 180mg.
Sugar will be replaced with other ingredients, typically carbohydrates with similar calorie levels, it said, and therefore the energy content of the cereals will remain about the same.
The company has also pledged nutritional improvements, including increased calcium content – to at least 15% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and use of wholegrain as a main ingredient in all recipes.
Slow and subtle change needed
Professor Jack Winkler, nutrition policy specialist, told BakeryandSnacks.com that while this move is “exactly the direction companies should be taking,” it will not be easy and must be exercised gradually and unobtrusively.
“It will take perseverance and discipline in the face of critics such as foodies who want it all tomorrow and financials who are demanding where the profits will come from,” Winkler said.
One such critic, Malcolm Clark, coordinator of UK health movement Children’s Food Campaign, questioned why such high levels of sugar and salt existed in the children’s cereal products in the first place.
“While we are giving credit to this move, the sugar and salt levels should not have been this high to start with. These are not healthy cereals and they still won’t be after the reformulation,” Clark said.
He called the claims on calcium and wholegrain “marketing misdirection used to position the product as healthy and disguise the levels of salt and sugar.”
The nutritional strategy for 21st century
Industry and government attempts to get consumers to replace unhealthy foods with healthy choices have failed, Winkler said, and this reformulation strategy represents an “alternative, pragmatic change of strategy starting”.
“Gradually improving the nutritional profile of mass market foods that consumers enjoy is a nutritional strategy for the 21st century. But it is the gradual nature that is absolutely essential here,” he said.
It must be done gradually to avoid shocking consumer taste preferences, he warned, and efforts must be unobtrusive to avoid repelling consumers. “The vast majority of consumers are repelled by less sugar and less salt claims.”
“Importantly, the unobtrusiveness must be kept for a long time – we’re talking decades,” he added.
“I hope Nestlé won’t try and make a boast about being healthier than they are. I hope they are modest about claims,” Winkler concluded.
Pressure to change?
Clark said the move has clearly been prompted by regulatory pressures from the EU and force from health organizations and Winkler suggested it was in line with rising childhood obesity concerns.
However, Hilary Green, head of R&D communications at Nestlé, said: “We are responding to what mums tell us they want. Our ultimate objective is to help mums make sure that their kids get a good start to the day and enjoy a nutritious and tasty breakfast.”
This is a long-term investment in R&D, Green said, and builds upon many years of technical knowledge and previous sugar and salt reductions across the company's cereal brand portfolio.
Since 2003, Cereal Partners Worldwide has removed more than 9,000 tons of sugar and nearly 900 tons of salt from its formulations, it said.