Despite the financial climate, there's no 'health crunch' when it comes to new product development, says Melanie Leech

World-class capabilities in R&D and a deep knowledge of consumers help explain why the food and drink sector has been able to respond so positively in the ongoing debates about the health of the nation by developing new products and refreshing old favourites so they are lower in fat, sugars or salt.

Changing the recipes of much-loved brands is a complex task - and needs to be done in a way that does not impact on functionality, quality or price. FDF members have been embracing this challenge for years and are leading the way when it comes to reformulating popular products - meeting consumer concerns about health in a way that doesn't compromise on taste.

But the scale of our work is often overlooked, misunderstood or taken for granted - which is why next week we are launching a report to showcase the impressive achievements of member companies of all sizes across every category type.

As well as providing a flavour of the many projects under way, we hope the report will help stakeholders understand the very significant technical, financial and consumer challenges that companies need to overcome with every new product or recipe development.

Our report also suggests the downturn has thus far not created any 'health crunch' when it comes to such innovation. Mintel GNPD (Global New Products Database) figures show 700 product lines have been launched with new recipes since 2007 - the equivalent of nine a week, more than in any other EU country. Mintel's research also suggests total sales of healthier-eating options in some key food and drink categories are now worth £8bn - and in some areas are growing at twice the rate of the market .

Change on this scale requires a huge financial commitment . The recession is forcing companies to reprioritise their investment decisions, and policy makers and regulators need to be sympathetic to the immediate economic pressures faced by food and drink companies. They may also need to be more realistic about the pace at which our members can be expected to keep delivering new, and expensive, innovations in what has become a very competitive, value-driven market.

There are issues, too, in how far companies can keep pushing the technical barriers to further change - without making compromises that consumers will reject. Other consumer trends can also restrict further innovation - demands for 'naturalness' in products, for instance, make it hard for manufacturers to swap sugars for artificial sweeteners. And, of course, the complex restrictions on the marketing of such new or revamped products create a huge disincentive to reformulation.

All that said, nobody should be under any illusions that our members do not remain totally focused on delivering the best-possible products and our commitment to healthier recipes in the industry's health and wellbeing action plan was unveiled back in 2004.

Our members are also focusing on areas where we can make the biggest difference - such as clearer on-pack nutrition labelling and workplace wellbeing schemes. We are also committed to continue working with Government and others to deliver long-term solutions that will improve the nation's health. That's our recipe for change.

Melanie Leech is director general of the Food & Drink Federation.