In the first sign of agenda-setting in some time, Mars is cutting the satfat content of the Mars bar. Can it steal a lead over its rivals, asks Alex Beckett

So it turns out there really is life on Mars. This week, Mars became the first confectionery company to reduce saturated fat levels across its core chocolate bar range. It's a timely announcement, arriving shortly after the end of the FSA's first consultation on its satfat recommendations. But arguably of greater significance is that it is the first example in recent memory of Mars setting the confectionery industry agenda.

While its more dynamic rivals, Nestlé and Cadbury, busied themselves with significant NPD, launched major media spends and announced eye-catching ethics and sustainability-based initiatives, Mars seemed content to lurk in the shadows. Its pledge, in April 2009, to use only sustainable cocoa across its range by 2020 hardly saw chocoholics reaching for their wallets. Last year, value sales of Mars bars dropped 2.9%, Snickers and Milky Way fell 2.7% and Twix 1.2% [Nielsen 52w/e 3 October 2009]. Galaxy and Maltesers grew by 1.3% and 3.4% respectively, but when the company's biggest NPD was the return of Treets, the extent of the malaise was clear. That's why this week's announcement looks so significant.

Chocolate bars have long been identified by food scientists as being among the most technically demanding products from which to remove satfats. Yet after five years of development, and at a cost of 10m (£9m), the confectioner is cutting satfats in Mars bars, Snickers, Milky Way, Topic and Flyte by at least 15% compared with current recipes.

Mars claims this equates to between 40% and 45% less satfat than the average of the top 25 chocolate bar brands (per 100g), and says the reduction is being made throughout the entire bar, rather than the individual chocolate or filling.

Mars bars will be the first to shed the fat, with the satfat content reducing from 5.9g per bar to 4.8g. Bars manufactured to the new recipe will start rolling off factory lines next week and the first reformulated bars are due to hit shelves in time for summer.

Mars MD Fiona Dawson is understandably reluctant to disclose how the fat has been replaced. She did reveal, however, that the new ingredient was primarily sunflower oil-based and is a liquid rather than a solid fat. This requires a more expensive production process but Dawson is adamant it will not mean higher prices for consumers. And while such innovation presents a great opportunity for Mars to steal a march on its rivals, the company claims the move isn't about generating sales.

"We have no sales uplift targets against the reductions," she says. "We just want to reassure consumers we are doing the right thing." She does, however, expect Mars' announcement to stir her rivals into action: "I imagine the issue of satfats is already on their radar and I hope they follow our lead."

Whether reducing satfat will be sufficient to see Mars gain an edge over Cadbury and Nestlé is debatable, says Sally Moses, brand consultant at Value Engineers.

"We know satfat is on the government's agenda but it would be dangerous to market the reductions as a consumer benefit, she says: "You never hear a consumer say 'I love a Mars bar but wish it had less saturated fat'."

How Mars will communicate the news will be revealed in the summer, when it is scheduled to begin a press and on-pack marketing campaign that will coincide with the start of the football World Cup.

"A happy coincidence," claims Dawson, but there is no doubt Mars will be looking to capitalise on this summer's tournament after 2008's Mars Balls campaign suffered from the absence of the England team from the European Championships. And with NPD confirmed for Galaxy in the near future, there's good reason to believe the chocolate giant is ready to wake from its slumber.

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Mars leads in race to reduce satfats (16 January 2010)