At the beginning of September last year, pupils at Mason High School in Cincinnati found something unusual in their canteen. Alongside the traditional vending machines that had been supplying them with chocolates, crisps and fizzy drinks for most of their formative years, was another machine – painted bright orange – selling nothing but carrots. Exactly the same size and shape as a conventional snack machine, the fresh produce on its shelves was packaged in small, opaque, crinkly bags similar to the sort of bags crisps come in. There were a number of different designs – one featured a weird orange alien creature on a green background, another had a black carrot-shaped object travelling through space – but inside all of the bags was the same thing: about three ounces of washed and peeled baby carrots, selling for 50 cents a bag.
Just in case the broad brush strokes on the packaging hadn’t got the message across, a strapline, in bold white lettering on the side of the machine, hammered the point home: “Baby carrots. Eat ‘em like junk food”.
The response was startling. Within an hour, pupils all over the school were walking around, munching on their new orangey treats. In the weeks that followed, the machine was emptied faster than the manufacturers could fill it.
“If they wanted a snack, they bought a bag of carrots,” recalls Tim Keeton, Mason’s assistant principal. “It easily got as much custom as our other vending machines which were selling the normal range of stuff; Sun Chips, Doritos, Cheetos and chocolate chip cookies.” The machine is no longer at the school. It was part of a six-month trial by one of the largest growers of carrots in the United States, Bolthouse Farms. But Bryan Reese, a graduate of the US Army’s West Point academy and the company’s head of marketing, believes the results of the test, which took place in schools and supermarkets in both Cincinnati and Syracuse, New York, herald the beginning of a new era in snack food.
“We looked at the success of mass-marketed categories and decided to take a page out of their marketing book,” says Reese. “We said, ‘We are not a vegetable, we’re a snack. If you want a vegetable, go eat broccoli. If you want a snack, eat baby carrots. They’re perfect for you. They’re crunchy, they’re bright orange; they’re sweet and they’re fun.’ We advertised for a couple of months and the category grew in double digits.” The brand is now off the market as Bolthouse makes plans for another, larger trial. If that trial is successful, then Reese thinks he may finally have discovered something parents and campaigners, both in the US and here in Britain, have been searching for for decades: a way to sell healthy produce to fast-food junkies.
It comes not a moment too soon. Britain has the highest proportion of obese citizens in the whole of Europe. Nearly one in four adults is classified as obese and, according to a study published in The Lancetlast month, the situation is only getting worse. The report’s authors, led by the epidemiologist, Klim McPherson, predicted that almost half of all British men and 43 per cent of women could be obese by 2030, prompting a huge rise in obesity-related diseases including an extra 668,000 cases of diabetes, 461,000 cases of heart disease and 130,000 more cases of cancer.
Of course, our penchant for junk food and high-calorie, high-fat snacks can’t take all the blame. The advances in technology over the past five decades have made us, as a nation, much lazier, meaning we burn off fewer calories in our day-to-day lives than we used to.
In recent years, the problem has simply become too big to ignore. Forced into action by a string of shocking reports from bodies like the World Health Organisation and media campaigns like Jamie’s School Dinners – in which the chef Jamie Oliver went to war against Bernard Matthews’s Turkey Twizzlers – government ministers have started to talk tough on junk food and adopted a new, more interventionist approach towards the nation’s diet.
Primary and secondary schools have been banned from serving chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks, both in their canteens and in vending machines, and television broadcasters are no longer allowed to show adverts for foods high in fat, salt and sugar during programmes aimed at children. All pupils aged between four and six now get a piece of fresh fruit every day at school and everyone – adults and children alike – are told to include five portions of fruit or vegetables in their daily diet.
Many health campaigners would like the government to go further, introducing strict limits on exactly how much fat, sugar and salt manufacturers are allowed to put in their products. But, actually, something altogether more surprising is happening: junk-food behemoths like McDonald’s, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are adapting to the new antipathy towards junk and remodelling themselves as responsible, health-conscious companies who can legitimately contribute to a well-balanced lifestyle. And while some of their initiatives might be nothing more than good PR, the corporations have also taken real steps, both to reduce the harm their products do to their customers and to develop new, healthier lines that challenge traditional snack foods in terms of taste.
Pepsi has led the charge. Early last year, its chief executive, a tall, slim, vegetarian called Indra Nooyi, announced that the company was fundamentally changing the mix of products it made, and was aiming to treble the revenue gained from nutritional and healthy food within 10 years.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine earlier this year, Nooyi said the new strategy went to the heart of her ambitions for PepsiCo – to construct a company that not only makes things that taste good, but one that is considered a “good company” by the general public. She also laid out robust commercial reasons behind her decision.
“With the ageing population and with everyone focusing on health, products that are good and nutritious, or nutritionally better than anything else out there, are a huge opportunity,” she said. “These categories are growing several times faster than anything else.”
Of course, many of the products PepsiCo bills as “good for you” are not always that good for you in nutritional terms; many, like Tropicana juices, have a high concentration of sugar, but they are better for you than the products the company describes as “better for you”, such as Diet Pepsi, which are, in turn, healthier than the “fun for you” products, such as regular Pepsi and Walkers crisps, that make up the largest part of the business.
The company has also hired senior figures from the World Health Organisation to drive through the changes, and spent millions of dollars reducing the sugar, fat and salt in products throughout its portfolio. In one of its most successful brands — Walkers — salt levels have been reduced by between 25 and 55 per cent and saturated fats by 70 to 80 per cent, and soon the company’s biochemists hope to introduce a brand-new salt, with drastically reduced sodium levels, yet all the taste.
Coca-Cola too has accepted some responsibility for the current levels of obesity (although, like all junk-food manufacturers, it prefers to single out sedentary lifestyles as the main culprit) and pledged itself to cutting the amount of sugar in its drinks if this can be done without changing the taste. Coke Zero, launched five years ago to appeal to health-conscious men who didn’t like Diet Coke (drunk predominantly by women), is the main feather in its cap. It boasts a taste that’s virtually indistinguishable from that of regular Coke. But Coca-Cola has also reduced the amount of sugar in regular Fanta by 30 per cent and Lilt by 60 per cent, without anyone really noticing. You simply cannot buy full-sugar Fanta or Lilt anymore.
“We don’t always flag it with a sign on the front saying this is no longer full-sugar because, for some people, taste is the most important thing, and you don’t always want to tell people in big letters what you’ve done,” says Helen Munday, Coca-Cola’s director of science. “[But], like many responsible manufacturers, we want to play our part in making sure that people have foods that can fit into their healthy lifestyles.” The world’s largest fizzy drink manufacturer spending millions on reducing the calorie content of two of its biggest brands and not even telling any of its customers what it’s done? It sounds a little strange. But, multinationals like Coca-Cola have not got to where they are today without learning how to predict trends and stave off potential crises. Realising how much pressure politicians are under to look tough on junk food, they have reasoned it’s better to move fast and prove themselves responsible, than to stay still and ultimately provoke new legislation which could impose expensive burdens on them to reformulate their products faster than they can or would like to.
Following the same logic, United Biscuits has reduced the saturated fat of McVitie’s Digestives by 80 per cent and Hobnobs by 75 per cent, Nestlé has reduced sodium levels in Shreddies by 43 per cent and Kraft Foods has globally reformulated or launched more than 5,000 products.
There have also been significant changes at McDonald’s, which now includes the calorie content of its products on its menus and has reduced the saturated fat and calories in its burgers. It also cooks its chips in a healthier canola-blend oil and includes slices of apples in the Happy Meals sold to children in the US. In a similar vein, Burger King offers young customers fresh, peeled apple, in the shape of chips, under the brand name Apple Fries.
Manufacturers are also keeping a keen eye on the latest trend for so-called “nutricosmetics”; foods that improve the structure of the skin.
Mars tested the proposition in 2008 with Dove Beautiful and Dove Vitalize, chocolate with added flavonols and minerals, but none of the major producers has so far developed a range for the mainstream market. There is also a line of prototype sweets, currently being trialled by the German-based company Beneo, that strengthen bones and improve digestion.
Of course, we shouldn’t get carried away. Junk-food manufacturers are still motivated primarily by profit and will do whatever they can to maximise the bottom line without damaging their image. Many low-fat products have simply replaced fat with sugar and are still far from healthy.
What’s more, if the public protests against the taste of a reformulated product – as happened earlier this month with Heinz’s HP Sauce, which, it was revealed, had had its salt levels reduced surreptitiously – the producer can normally be expected to change it back.
All of which means there is still a gap in the market for a smaller company to become some sort of consumer champion. Bear, a healthy snack-food producer which was set up two years ago by personal trainer Hayley Gait-Golding and her husband Andrew, could be that company. Its Yo Yos fruit rolls, aimed at children, and its Fruit and Granola Nibbles for adults, have been flying off the shelves in Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s and seem to have the appeal of a “treat” without any of the corresponding ill effects of chocolate or crisps. The company’s turnover for this year is already £3million and, as it continues to grow and win fans with its refusal to use chemicals and preservatives, its popularity might force the standards of bigger companies upwards.
In the meantime, Dr Mike Rayner, director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford, warns there is still a long way to go if we are to reverse the frightening rise in obesity.
“There is some evidence to show that some things are improving in Britain,” he says. “Fruit intakes are increasing, levels of awareness about diet have increased. But it’s not just about producing healthier foods within the snack or confectionary category. We have to get people to eat fewer snacks and less confectionary. And if you’re in the snack-food market like Pepsi are, you don’t want that to happen.”