HFSS legislation has led to reformulation across a number of categories. How have they done it? And what’s the impact on consumer demand?

It’s only been two years since Boris Johnson announced plans to crack down on promotions of HFSS foods, but for many food & drink businesses it may feel like a lifetime.

Johnson is gone, but the legacy of his move can now be seen in supermarkets across the country, the restrictions having come into force on 1 October.

Not only have retailers had to rethink their layouts, but suppliers across categories from crisps to chocolate to frozen pizza have been spurred to reformulate and launch new products, or face potentially losing significant volumes.

That Kellogg’s went as far as taking the government to court over the legislation, warning in June it could lose up to £113m in sales if the crackdown came into force, just goes to show what’s at stake.

So who’s done what? How do you actually go about making a product healthier without killing its taste? And how have shoppers responded to these launches so far?

It’s important not to underestimate the scale of the challenge that cutting down salt, fat and sugar poses for those in the business of making food.

“[Salt, fat and sugar] do very functional things, and they’re very cheap,” says Bingham & Jones partner Jonny Bingham. “All the replacements are more expensive and will be more expensive for the foreseeable future.”

Costs aside, they are also “integral in terms of function” in many recipes, adds Bingham & Jones senior product developer Aaron Givon. “Replacing [these ingredients] means you have to add other things to stabilise”, he says. Removing salt, fat and sugar can mean rethinking all the other parts of a recipe, he says.

Reformulation challenge

That said, some categories have been significantly easier to reformulate than others.

Like crisps, says Bingham. “Crisps are generally a slice of potato, so no issue there. The seasonings are topical, so can be formulated using yeasts, and enhancers to replace what salts bring. They don’t suffer so much on bulking issues as the topical element is not integral to the overall weight of the product.”

Thus, healthier crisps are now omnipresent. KP alone now has some 110 non-HFSS SKUs – a quarter of its entire portfolio, while Walkers has rolled out a low salt version of its bestselling core crisps.

The crackdown on crisps has also created opportunities for nuts, which will not be subject to the rules. “We have been working to ensure the nuts category has increased presence and prominence,” says KP sales director Andy Riddle, who wants to “explode the whole nuts category and create nuts for every moment”.

“There’s a significant category opportunity to use nuts on gondola ends as a signpost for [the wider category],” he adds.

Cereal brands, too, have had “an easier day of it”, says Givon. “They’re still going to be extruded wheat or rice products coated in something, and the innovation around coatings has come on a long way in the last five or six years.”

Kellogg’s has reformulated a mass of its bestselling brands including Special K and its kids’ cereals, while Nestlé has cut the sugar and salt from Coco Shreddies, Frosted Shreddies and other cereals, as well as launching a new low-sugar Cheerios spin-off, Vanilla O’s.

In soft drinks, “given the shift to low- and no-sugar variants in recent years, and the implementation of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy” suppliers are “well positioned” for HFSS too, says Britvic GB commercial director Ben Parker. The clampdown is “an opportunity to assist retailers by shifting space from non-compliant categories to soft drinks, and elevating soft drinks shopper experiences through in-store activations and merchandising solutions”.

It gets harder in categories like biscuits and frozen pizza. For the former, “the fat is important to the aeration of the dough”, says Givon.

Meanwhile, Birds Eye marketing director Jim Shearer says pizza poses a particular challenge due to it being comprised of many individual components. The frozen giant’s pizza range is now 80% non-HFSS, which it has achieved in part by upping the fibre content.

“Through thorough review of our component ratios, we have been able to avoid the use of low-fat cheese or reduced fat meats which may have compromised quality and taste.”

The chocolate challenge

Chocolatiers, arguably, have the biggest hill to climb. “A chocolate bar falls apart if you even try to do it,” says Joe Harriman, HFSS strategic consultant at IRI.

Which helps explains why Mondelez has rolled out a range of non-HFSS sweets, biscuits and drinking chocolates for Cadbury, Maynard Bassetts and its new Natural Confectionery Company brand. But it has so far left its core Cadbury chocolates as they are.

“Reformulating chocolate is very difficult given the role that sugar in particular plays in the product,” says Mondelez trade communications manager Susan Nash. “Chocolate formulation is also prescribed by statute, which prohibits the use of starch, artificial sweeteners, polyols and other sugar replacers.”

Plus, many shoppers “are not willing to compromise on taste”, she says, adding that the brand has “an additional responsibility to ensure that any innovation on Cadbury dairy Milk remains true to the iconic taste consumers know and love”.

Mars, however, has launched non-HFSS versions of Bounty, Galaxy, Mars and Snickers bars, under a new Triple Treat range. The treats are drastically different to the core chocolates, utilising ingredients such as date paste, raisins and peanuts.

Will they sell?

So, after two years of preparation, there are plenty of products on shelf to keep big brands in key locations in store. But the question as to whether shoppers will actually like these products is yet to be answered.

The results so far are mixed, to say the least. Dr Oetker’s healthier pizza brand The Good Baker has put in a solid performance, raking in £2m since launch [Kantar 52 w/e 7 July 2022], while Nestlé’s Simple One non-HFSS Shreddies was ditched after just one year.

Harriman says it’s too early to seriously judge consumer reaction because new layouts haven’t been in place and these products haven’t so far been given the prominent position they will now claim. “Now is when we will really understand which new products and which reformulated products will do well long term,” he says. “I think it’s going to differ between different customer groups, categories and retailers.”

The cost of living crisis could have an effect, too, he adds. “When [the clampdown] was first announced, customers might have been happier to buy a healthier product even if it costs slightly more. Maybe that won’t be the case this year.”

Bingham argues that whether shoppers actually like these products could, in the long run, be less important than simply securing the space in stores.

“It’s their chance to virtue signal and get on a gondola end. If they’re sat on a gondola end with a halo product that isn’t going to be shopped as much, it’s still a great advertisement that will subliminally put the brand in somebody’s mind.”

With the onset of legislation, this week was a monumental one for many food and drink brands in retail. But when it comes to understanding the real consequences of the HFSS sea change, this is just the beginning.