The industry is ahead of the game when it comes to removing unwanted ingredients. But there's a danger that the recent negative press surrounding an FSA-commissioned study linking certain additives with health and behavioural problems in kids could dent consumer confidence, warn respondents to this month's buyers' panel.

Almost all the buyers polled say they have been reviewing and working on the elimination of 'unnatural' ingredients for months, if not years - way ahead of the warnings issued this month by the FSA.

Their assertions are backed up by the fact that one in every four new food and drink products launched in the UK this year claims to be additive and preservative-free - up from only 8% three years ago, according to the latest Mintel data.

It is now the number one health claim for new products, with 80% of respondents agreeing it is essential. An even higher proportion - nine out of 10 - have already asked a supplier to clean up an existing product.

“Natural has been the buzzword throughout the food industry for quite a while,” says a buyer for one major multiple. “Consumers have been moving towards more wholesome, natural ingredients and are beginning to be distrustful of products they think have been tampered with.”

The issue has grown over the past 12 months as people have become more aware of additives in food, says another buyer. “The media contributes, of course, as do retailers making big claims about producers being additive-free. Consumer understanding of the issue is definitely increasing.”

Unfortunately, with greater consumer awareness comes a greater risk of scare stories. “This additives scare is no surprise,” says one buyer. “We have been focusing on people's interest in a more natural lifestyle. Consumers are really beginning to care about what goes into their food. We have to be ahead of the game.”

However, there are two concerns, say buyers: one, that the danger of certain additives is overplayed; and two, that consumers assume that artificial additives are more prevalent than they actually are. “Whenever something has been in the news - as additives have - there is consumer concern. It's something we are always monitoring but our suppliers are too,” says one buyer.

“The issue had not topped my list until recently and I have listed new products that contain additives, but it's becoming more important all the time.”

There's been a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to these latest findings, adds another. “The FSA study wasn't conclusive and said that hyperactivity wasn't simply down to food colourings. However, the general message most people get is that additives are bad and you have to take that into account.”

That's why retailers and suppliers have been hard at work stripping out 'nasties' and replacing them with more natural alternatives as well as reducing salt, sugar and trans fats.

PepsiCo switched production of all its Walkers crisps and snacks to Sunseed oil more than 18 months ago. More recently, Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks & Spencer announced plans to scrap additives from certain products, while Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Mars UK pledged to speed up plans to remove food additives from leading confectionery brands such as Murray Mints and Starburst. Mars has also replaced the artificial additives in its new range of Dolmio Bolognese sauces with alternatives, for instance, swapping citric acid for lemon juice.

The level of activity does depend on the category, of course. “Consumers are far more likely to be concerned about additives in products aimed at, or eaten regularly, by children,” says one confectionery buyer.

“They are much less likely to worry about it when it's an adult-oriented or indulgent range. And if changing ingredients affects taste that can be another story.”

It's a similar story with soft drinks. “Additives have been an essential factor in my category for a long time and it's not going away,” says one buyer. “The more we're seen to be getting rid of these ingredients, though, the more trust consumers have in us.”

Getting the packaging right is also important. It's no good just removing the negative ingredients - you've got to be seen to be clean and to shout about it on the pack. “We work with suppliers to make sure consumers notice these factors,” explains one buyer. “Shoppers who don't care won't care any less if it's pointed out to them, but those who do care want to know.”

Despite the reformulation work, the level of media and government scrutiny has created “a difficult climate” admits one buyer. “On one hand manufacturers are told to reduce salt, sugar and fat and so on, and now it's additives and colourings.”

The pressure is not about to let up. The Prime Minister is pushing the EU to force food manufacturers to remove additives and the European Food Safety Authority plans to review 45 colourings by the end of next year. And these are just initiatives relating to food additives, point out buyers.

“The possible crackdown on food additives is just one in a long list,” says one. “Food safety law is changing all the time and we all need to monitor developments closely.” N

The questions we asked:

1) When considering a listing, is it essential that products are additive-free
Yes 80%
No 20%

2) Do you take into account trans fats when considering a listing?
Yes 80%
No 20%

3) Do you think consumers look at ingredient lists before buying?
Yes 70%
No 30%

4) Do you ask manufacturers to clean up their products?
Yes 90%
No 10%

Source: Online poll conducted by The Grocer