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Changing food without changing behaviour

Bernie Commins spoke to Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive officer at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) about reformulation and its role in ensuring that consumers eat more nutritious foods that support a healthier lifestyle

In 2021, the Reformulation Task Force, a strategic partnership between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and Healthy Ireland, was established to implement Roadmap for Food Reformulation in Ireland (2021-2025). This roadmap is a core element of Ireland’s Obesity Policy and Action Plan, and it sets targets for the reduction of energy (calories) and sugar by 20 per cent and salt and saturated fat by 10 per cent, between 2015 and 2025.

This year, the taskforce hosted a workshop on reformulation for food manufacturers, retailers, and the out-of-home foodservice sector. 

Dr Byrne, who was present and spoke at the event, explained to , what exactly food reformulation is, and why retailers, manufacturers and the foodservice sector are all being called upon to play their part in it.

“In its truest form, food reformulation is the reduction of nutrients of public-health concern which include salt, sugar and saturated fat, in an existing food product,” says Dr Byrne. “This is preferable as it means consumers are eating less of these nutrients without having to change their behaviour.” 

At the crux of this is the need to address the issue of obesity and overweight in Ireland, as almost two-thirds of Irish adults are living with these conditions. “Combatting obesity is a very complex issue,” says Dr Byrne. “So retailers, manufacturers and the foodservice sector are being called on to reduce the amount of sugar, saturated fat, calories and salt in food to help play their part in creating a healthier food environment for consumers in Ireland.” And this is something that consumers, too, have a hunger for. In a report published by Safefood, in Ireland – Public acceptability of policies to address obesity – 89 per cent of Irish consumers were in favour of collaboration between government and food companies for healthier processed foods. And, in response to a 2022 FSAI LinkedIn poll, which asked followers if there is a need to reduce salt, saturated fat and sugar in the Irish diet, 92 per cent said ‘yes’.

Dr Byrne outlines a number of ways in which advancements have already been made in food reformulation in Ireland, and in providing examples, she says: “O’Briens Fine Foods reduced the salt content in a very challenging product, as salt has both functional and sensory attributes in processed meats. The salt content of processed meat was reduced by 16 per cent.

“Kerry reduced sugar in a children’s yoghurt product. From a starting point of 12.8g sugar through gradual reduction in single digit percentage adjustments, in 2022 the product launched with 9.3g sugar. This is a 27 per cent sugar reduction over the product evolution from 2015-2022. By gradually reducing sugar over many years, consumer palates adapt more easily to lower sugar content,” she says.

When it comes to a practical foodservice reformulation example, Dr Byrne says: “Sodexo reduced the calorie content of workforce menus by using ingredients already stocked by their suppliers and increased customer satisfaction on food choice because of healthier offerings within the lunch offer.”

Reformulation reputation

While reformulation is necessary for the health of Irish consumers, it is also important in ‘maintaining the competitiveness of our food industry at home and in the more-than 180 markets we export to across the world’ according to the progress report of the Food Reformulation Task Force, which was published this year. Dr Byrne explains: “Ireland has a reputation for producing and exporting high-quality foods, and the healthiness of foods is now becoming an important constituent of ‘quality’. Reformulation is being pursued in many countries, globally, and it is important for the Irish food industry to ensure the food products they are producing and exporting are keeping up with consumer demand for healthier food products. The Irish food and drink industry have an opportunity to produce high-quality and healthier food by meeting food reformulation targets.” 

And start-up food and drink companies must ensure that reformulation is considered from the very outset of their product-development journey. Dr Byrne explains: “Young food and drink companies should look at the nutrition composition of similar food products to understand the range of nutrition compositions in the sector. They could also apply a nutrient profile, such as traffic light, nutriscore or the World Health Organization’s Euro nutrient profile model to their food product to understand if their product could be considered to have a healthier nutrient profile. 

“These young food and drink companies should consider the conditions of use for nutrition claims such as low in sugar, low in salt and low in saturated fat and, if possible, develop products in line with these conditions of use. This would also allow them to use nutrition and related health claims on their food product.” 

Reformulation, says Dr Byrne, is aimed at benefitting population health: “Therefore, reformulation must be carried out in a holistic way, and must not just focus on market segmentation, for example, targeting price or volume (lower price products or leading brands). The market is dynamic, and consumer choices often change quickly. To be effective, food reformulation targets must be acted on now in priority food categories by manufacturers, retailers and the foodservice sector.”


This taskforce is based on sound scientific evidence and research. It supports and monitors the reduction of selected nutrients, such as sugar, saturated fat, salt and energy (kcal)) in key food categories. This is because high and unbalanced intakes of these nutrients or energy (kcal) are associated with serious negative impacts on public health such as obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

According to Dr Byrne the key food-reformulation considerations for food businesses are: 

  • Ensure that external stakeholders are aware of your reformulation goals and keep them informed about your progress e.g., invite suppliers to tell you about innovation in their sector and bring ideas to you. Work with them as you reformulate your product portfolio.

  • New products should be developed with low levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat so that reformulation is considered at the beginning of the process of new product development.

  • You must know your customer well and check in with them throughout the reformulation process e.g., conduct sensory testing to new product recipes/use of new ingredients and conduct attitudinal research.

  • If you are an SME, learn from others in your sector. Review the capabilities and opportunities others have shown is possible.


Reformulation consultation

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently published a consultation on draft reformulation targets for commercially available complementary foods (CACFs). These are foods marketed to infants and young children under 36 months (excluding infant and young child formulas and food supplements). A Roadmap for Food Product Reformulation in Ireland (2021-2025) requires the Food Reformulation Task Force to develop reformulation targets for these CACFs. The roadmap outlines these targets will build on work completed, to date, by the FSAI on assessing the nutritional composition and appropriateness of CACFs sold on the Irish market in 2012, 2018 and 2021. This work found inappropriate CACFs, high in added sugar and salt, on the Irish market. These findings demonstrate there is a need to continue to improve the nutrient content of CACFs on the Irish market. Improvement of the nutritional quality of CACFs is a priority given the vulnerability of the target population and the potential for long-term adverse health effects as a result of establishing taste preferences for sugar and salt, including an increased risk of obesity and chronic disease in later life. To address this, the FRT has developed draft reformulation targets for CACFs, aligning with infant and young child feeding policy and baby and toddler food legislative requirements. These targets are based on the World Health Organization and University of Leeds Nutrient and Promotion Profile Model. Source: FSAI.

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