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Supermarkets could help you eat fewer calories without realizing

A new study demonstrates how supermarkets could play a role in fighting obesity by reducing the calories in their products. Using a strategy known as silent reformulation, retailers can change the recipes of food products to lower calorie content without alerting customers.

Jørgen Dejgaard Jensen is a professor at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study.

“Silent product reformulation may not achieve dramatic reductions in the population’s calorie intake, but there seems to be little doubt that it can reduce calorie intake, and that it can do so at a relatively low cost,” said Jensen.

The researchers analyzed data from a silent reformulation that took place between March 2013 and 2014. A Danish retail chain reformulated eight of its own-brand products including mayonnaise, fruit yoghurt, pumpkin seed rye bread, toasting buns, yoghurt bread, carrot buns, whole-grain rolls, and chocolate muesli. Nutritional facts were updated on the product labels but the changes were not announced to customers.

The study revealed that the overall calorie sales of six products dropped up to 7 percent after the reformulation. Some customers swapped out the new bread and chocolate cereal for alternatives with higher calories, which negated the calorie-reducing effects for those two product categories. For the majority of the products, however, the effects of reformulation were positive.

The researchers pointed out that potential changes in consumer behavior, such as switching out reformulated bread for another brand, must be taken into consideration when measuring the success of these interventions. They said that studies which do not take this data into account may overstate the public health benefits of product reformulations.

Professor Jensen explained that the recipe changes made in the products were only “marginal” changes that focused on maintaining the same appearance and taste.

“Previous research has indicated that through a sequence of such marginal product reformulations, it may be possible to undertake more substantial changes in food products’ nutritional characteristics, and still maintain consumers’ acceptance of the products,” said Jensen.

The research team also examined whether consumer behavioral changes would negatively affect sales. They found that the product reformulations had very little impact on the retailer’s sales turnover, which indicates that such health interventions can be done at a relatively low cost for the retailers. The findings of the study are published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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