The Food Standards Agency is considering using shock tactics to persuade people to cut down on consumption of saturated fat, The Grocer has learnt.
It is also considering asking manufacturers of products high in saturated fat, such as butter and cheese, to put cigarette box-style warnings on-pack. These would urge consumers to eat such products in moderation or as a rare treat.
The moves would form part of a publicity campaign developed under the FSA's strategy to cut consumption of fat.
A consumer study conducted for the agency by CML Research found an approach based on shock tactics was considered "successful in challenging complacent attitudes and preconceptions of saturated fat". It added: "Shock tactics show potential to cut through the crowded media environment, are likely to be memorable and could potentially have talk value."
Researchers said graphic images of fat - the kind seen on popular TV shows about food and health - had a big impact on the consumers they spoke to. "Dramatising the amount of saturated fat in foods in an unexpected and unappetising way proved effective, as almost all were repulsed by the idea of eating lard.
"Furthermore, it created a strong emotional response via the shocking visual images and so acted as a wake-up call to many."
The FSA, which presented the findings to industry stakeholders last week, insisted any plans for a campaign were "at an early stage". "Any activity in this area is not due until 2009," said a spokesman. "As part of its planning process the FSA is likely to undertake further research and discussions with a wide pool of stakeholders to explore how best to proceed. At this stage it is too early to speculate about the form such activity may take."
However, it is understood the agency is about to test messages designed to reveal that everyday foods- primarily meat, dairy, and snacks and confectionery - are much higher in saturated fat than people may realise. These include the claim that two slices of buttered toast contain more saturated fat than four doughnuts, and that a cheese sandwich contains more than half of an individual's GDA of saturated fat.
The FSA is also to consider messages that illustrate the damaging effect saturated fat can have on the body.
News the FSA is contemplating such an approach has caused consternation among suppliers of products likely to be targeted.
Ed Komorowski, technical director of Dairy UK, said there was a danger that simplistic messages could switch people away from balanced diets that included healthy foods such as cheese, which is high in calcium. "Tactics designed to shock people could actually mislead them," he said. "Comparing the saturated fat content of buttered toast with doughnuts is not giving the full picture of the nutritional qualities of these products."
Such an advertising campaign could fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, he warned.
Clare Cheney, director general of the PTF, said: "Diet is a complex thing. It's not like cigarettes, where you either smoke or you don't and if you do it's bad for you. With diet, it's about eating a combination of different things in different quantities."