Heart Foundation supports food companies to remove tonnes of sugar from staple low-cost foods

The Heart Foundation helps reduce sugar in staple foods – via the Heart Foundation

The Heart Foundation’s Food Reformulation programme has had a significant impact on supporting lower sugar levels in a number of everyday, low-cost food items on supermarket shelves. It is estimated that 760 tonnes of sugar per annum have been removed from targeted food categories.

“Sugar is found in a number of everyday foods so gradually reducing levels has a significant impact on the health of New Zealanders. It is pleasing to see the progress by a number of major food companies since the targets were set,” says Dave Monro, Heart Foundation, Chief Advisor Food and Nutrition.

“Food manufacturers provide most of the food we eat so it’s vitally important to work alongside the industry to improve the New Zealand food supply.”

Research shows that high intakes of sugar are linked with risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol, high triglycerides and can contribute to increased body weight.

The Food Reformulation programme, developed by the Heart Foundation, and funded by Te Whatu Ora – Health NZ, was set up in 2007 to set targets and support food companies to decrease the levels of salt, especially in low-cost foods.

With major improvements already made in the levels of salt (which is the main source of sodium), the programme was extended to include sugar, eight years ago.

Sugar reduction targets cover a range of food categories from yoghurt to pasta sauce to cereal bars, with major food companies using the targets to both improve existing products but also act as a guide for developing new products.

The Heart Foundation works with companies representing over 80% of the market share in each food category and this ensures main brands and leading-selling foods are prioritised.

Key reductions include,

  • The median sugar content of the 10 top selling yoghurts reduced by 39%
  • The median sugar content of the 10 top selling flavoured milks reduced by 18%
  • A selection of leading selling cereal bars reduced sugar levels by 27%
  • A range of leading selling breakfast cereals have had sugar reductions of over 20%

For many New Zealanders, shifting to lower cost, and in some cases processed foods, is a way of stretching their food dollar. However, a number of processed foods like breads and breakfast cereals are a source of salt and/or sugar.

“It is estimated that around 75% of the salt we consume comes from processed foods rather than being added at the table,” Dave says.

He says the changes that companies are making behind the scenes, is a ‘health by stealth’ approach. “New Zealanders are getting the benefits of less salt and sugar in their foods, and yet are not detecting the change.

“We know that there are significant cost barriers to people selecting healthier versions of products. It is therefore critical to work with major food companies and gradually reduce the salt and sugar levels of everyday, leading household products. Changes to these products will bring the largest public health benefits.”

Tracey Seager, Innovation & Sustainability Director from Griffin’s, says, “The Heart Foundation’s targets have helped us implement changes to a number of our leading products. Sugar levels have been reduced by 20% in some of our most popular Nice & Natural cereal bars and sodium levels reduced by 15 – 20% in some of our popular ETA Chips and Huntley & Palmers Crackers. By making these improvements to our higher selling products, it means we can bring the benefits to many pantries and households across New Zealand.”

Renee Milkop-Kerr, Director of Marketing from Fonterra Brands New Zealand, says, “In 2019, Fonterra reformulated the recipe of the Fresh’n Fruity yoghurt, Primo and Anchor CalciYum flavoured milks, while continuing to maintain the delicious taste Kiwis have loved for generations. This reformulation resulted in a 40% average reduction of added sugar across the Fresh’n Fruity range and of a 30% average reduction across the Primo and Anchor CalciYum flavoured milks compared to the original recipe.”

Dave says while it’s great to know these behind-the-scenes changes are being made in a voluntary way by food companies, food reformulation remains only one part of the big picture when it comes to improving what we eat.

“There are still significant gaps in our food system, including a lack of updated nutrition intake data and the lack of an overarching food and nutrition plan for New Zealand.”

Read more about the Food Reformulation programme here.

Highlights of the Food Reformulation programme:

  • The programme started in 2007 with a pilot in bread – a leading source of salt in the NZ diet. As a result of the pilot programme food companies removed 150 tonnes of salt from leading selling breads, largely white breads in one year.
  • After the pilot programme the approach has been expanded to many other food categories. Now there are more than 50 targets over 40 categories.
  • The older targets have been revised at 4-year intervals to encourage ongoing reductions, and the engagement of leading companies.
  • Some high-volume breads are now 29% lower in salt than they were in 2006, lower cost high volume cereal brands have almost a third less salt, and a number of other food categories like savoury snacks, processed meats (bacon and ham), have had reductions of around 15-20%.
  • The programme targets high volume and lower cost products for maximum public health impact and reach to vulnerable groups.