Science - February 20, 2020

‘Food Industry Invests too Little in Healthy Products’

Tessa Louwerens

Food companies should apply less stringent demands on economic aspects such as taste and price when developing products, leaving room for societal values such as health and sustainability. This is the position of PhD candidate Jilde Garts. She discovered that companies who involve NGOs and consumers in their feedback panels, develop healthier products. And that health badges for food have a minimal effect on product innovation.

‘It is not always easy for companies to innovate for healthier products’, says Garst, who defended her doctoral thesis in Business Management & Organisation on 5 February. Primarily because health does not always match with other essential product characteristics such as flavour and price. ‘If a producer lowers the sugar content in soda, the consumer may no longer consider the drink sweet enough and end up using larger quantities of the product to achieve the same taste, or switch to a less healthy alternative from a competitor.’

The fact that there is a consensus on what constitutes ‘healthy’ in the food industry leads to a lack of critical reflection.
Jilde Garst

Besides, there is a discussion on what is and is not healthy. According to some, a healthy diet must contain meat, while others claim that products without artificial flavouring and aromas are healthiest. New research results lead to shifts in the scientific definition of health. Garst: ‘Food companies wanting to develop healthy products must wade through different insights that also change form time to time.’

What is healthy?
Garst discovered that companies who apply a consistent definition of health are more successful in developing healthy products. ‘And we see that companies that tend to work primarily for their profit, are more likely to adopt every new health trend.’ Her research also revealed that companies that ask feedback on their products from consumers and NGOs develop more healthy products. Asking for feedback from other commercial parties such as suppliers or customers has no influence. ‘A possible explanation could be that there is already a consensus in the food industry on what constitutes ‘healthy’, which leads to a lack of critical reflection, while feedback from society leads to new insights on the definition of health and how this may be applied to products.’

Price and flavour have more influence on the customers buying behaviour than health and sustainability

‘In our economic system, a company’s worth is defined in terms of its economic value. And we also know that pricing and flavour are more important elements in the buying behaviour of consumers than considerations of health and sustainability. To create economic value, companies will focus primarily on pricing and flavour’, says Garst.  She argues that companies should not just focus on their own profit, but also aim to contribute to society. A difficult choice, because this does not always pay off economically. ‘The entrepreneur takes a risk in developing a healthy product that may not yield as much profit’, says Garst. ‘If the entrepreneur develops a product with less sugar, there is a chance the consumer will switch to a competitor.’

As long as health badges are voluntary, unhealthy products will remain invisible.

To prevent this and level the playing field, badges such as ‘Vinkje’ (a health badge with a coloured tick indicating this is a healthy choice within the product group)  and the new Nutri-Score were launched. Garst: ‘My research shows that formulating health criteria and applying more stringent demands, don’t always incite companies to innovate. This is partly due to the fact that whether or not a company is doing well in this regard, remains invisible. Although the health badge on the packaging is a visible sign, the consumer is unlikely to notice if the product no longer meets the requirements and loses the badge. So this does not affect the company’s reputation.

The same applies to the Nutri-score. If more countries used it, this would increase the pressure on companies to get involved, but as long as participation is voluntary, unhealthy products can remain invisible. A ranking of companies based on criteria such as the percentage of healthy products it produces could help motivate companies to improve.’

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