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In & Out of the Box

Yesterday Salt Was a Drug, Today Sugar Is the New Tobacco

Times are certainly changing. Many of us have been spending a lot of time reducing sodium levels in products. If we weren’t, we certainly should have been. It is way overdue if you have not sought help from your private label suppliers in sodium reduction throughout the system. I know many of you do not have the in-house capabilities to search your specifications database to seek all products that exceed a certain percentage of daily allowance, but you should be on a path to develop that resource as a matter of great urgency.

In Mark Kurlansky’s excellent 2002 book titled “Salt: A World History” he referred to the world’s “insatiable demand” for salt. It doesn’t take long at your computer to see that while sodium consumption is falling around the world, it is not falling anywhere near fast enough. Those proponents of cooking from scratch compared with buying processed foods and meals know only too well the unbelievable difference between a ready-made box of “X” versus making it from scratch.

Michael Moss’s important book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” (2013), asks many a scary question. For example, “Must a child-targeted snack pack contain 830 milligrams of sodium and 39 grams of sugar?” Enough said.

Or is it? What are we all doing as custodians of the health of our nations? How serious are we, really?

Consumers have always voted with their feet in terms of which stores they shop in, but it is in our foreseeable future that the percentage of consumers that seek out retailers and products that can help them nutritionally will be more than the relatively small percentage they are today. You need to be ready. You need to be doing something positive.

Which brings me to sugar. (Yes, the “new tobacco”!) We all know that the fortunes of the carbonated beverage companies are in the hands of very worried consumers. Governments in many countries are examining their health-care costs and seeing the dramatic rise in the ageing population, as well as the dramatic rise in obesity and health concerns of children. Stevia farming is at an all-time high and planting is expanding across the globe into multiple countries that had never even heard of this “magic plant” till the last couple of years.

Today, as I write this, the new movie “Fed Up” has just opened this past weekend in theaters across North America. The tagline is “Everything we’ve been told about food and exercise for the past 30 years is dead wrong. ‘Fed Up’ is the film the food industry doesn’t want you to see.” Yes, of course, we have seen many documentaries in the last few years about the dangers of poor eating habits. And if you want to get some real “religion” about this, Jamie Oliver’s 2010 TED talk, “Teach Every Child About Food,” is a 22-minute epiphany for us all. If you haven’t seen it, you must! Every retailer and food manufacturer should be acquainting themselves with the potential revolution that is desperately needed. From Argentina to Australia, from Canada to Chile, from the United States to Europe, from and from Nauru to New Zealand. The numbers are freely available to us all. And what are we doing about it?

I strongly advise every retailer and manufacturer to get their executive management together in a room and watch Jamie Oliver and “Fed Up,” hand out copies of “Salt Sugar Fat,” and ask them to draw up an action plan.

Whatever the plan, make sure you have, as a retailer, the ability to access every single product specification within your private label portfolio. Whether it’s a sophisticated PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) program or a major searchable database, you must have access to the data. You simply must have “the app for that”! Whether you have nutritionists on board in your team or not, consider how long it will take to assess the top 500 products in your portfolio, ranked on the daily percentage of sodium, sugar and fat. Then, get your product development teams to work. Time to examine closely and rethink the portfolio. As retailers, call your suppliers and ask them what they can do for you. As manufacturers, call your customers and tell them what you are doing for the products you supply them.

Of course, without a traceability process in place or some form of PLM, you will not be able to do much—or at least not within a reasonable timeframe. It is incumbent on all of us to do something about this. Make sure as retailers and manufacturers you are equipped with the right resources to make a move. It’s time to talk “top to top” with the major brand suppliers at the same time. What are they doing? Salt, sugar and fat should be top-of-mind. We need to develop agendas and discussion topics to replace better discounts, sponsorships and promotions.

We are all facing tough times: increased competition, depressed economic growth, online retailing. The list goes on. But it’s time to make nutrition and our resources to track what we are doing every day the top priority for the next 5 years. We know that tobacco had addictive ingredients. We know that sugar is addictive if intake is uncontrolled. So let’s not wait any longer! Being sweet must be achieved in new ways.

 And please go see “Fed Up.” Today.  

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