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Meeting consumer expectations for healthier and more sustainable diets

Published: 08/07/2020

Agnes Martin, Director of Health & Diet Advocacy at Danone, walks us through the role of processed foods and specialised nutrition in the context of healthier living.

The importance of a healthy diet has jumped much higher in the minds of many people over the past few months. Even before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss market was worth an estimated €600 billion globally. And since the start of the outbreak there have been reports of a growing demand from younger people for more nutrients in their food choices.

Food and drink companies, such as Danone, are keen to be part of the solution. “Our aim is to bring health through food to as many people as possible. And we are convinced that the health of people and that of the planet are closely interconnected, with food playing an important role in that interconnection,” says Agnes Martin, health & diet advocacy director at Danone.

“For us, it is therefore crucial that all actors along the food value chain work together to accelerate the shift towards healthy, sustainable food systems and diets. That is why through our EU Call to Action for a Common Food Policy, we ask the EU to focus on the promotion of healthy, sustainable and nutritious diets – including more plant-based foods and healthy hydration.”

Consumers themselves are getting more and more interested in what they eat and drink, with a raising awareness of how the dietary choices they make can impact their health and general well-being.

“In the light of the Covid-19 crisis, the World Health Organization has reminded us that people eating a well-balanced diet tend to be healthier, with stronger immune systems and lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious diseases. Hence, there is a growing awareness that food can play a central part in self-care. We believe this is only going to drive demand for healthier products even more in the future,” says Martin.

The role of processed food

There is much debate around what actually constitutes a healthy diet, with processed food often seen in a negative light. Martin says this discussion must be re-framed. “First of all we have to remind everyone that processing is a gift because without it, we would not be able to feed everyone safely today,” she says.

“As a matter of fact, the first role of food processing is in food safety – something we forget. Take the example of milk. Very few people drink raw milk today because we know it might contain some harmful bacterial contaminants. It is a small process, but we need to pasteurise the milk to ensure that it is safe for consumers to drink. It’s also a way to preserve the milk for longer and reduce waste.”

We have to remind everyone that processing is a gift because without it, we would not be able to feed everyone safely today

Even more complex processing can offer benefits to consumers in terms of creating a nutritious product, says Martin. “When you make a yoghurt, you have to pasteurise milk and then maybe add some milk powder for texture. Then you have to ferment it. Fermentation is a natural process resulting from the biological activity of live ferments that lasts for 4 or 5 hours. Yoghurt is a processed yet most definitely healthy product, and it actually helps consumers digest milk, giving it a different and pleasurable flavour and taste.”

Beyond plain yoghurt which contains a very short list of natural ingredients, Danone is paying additional attention today to simplifying and reducing the number of ingredients it uses in a number of other products – something very much part of the clean label trend often talked about today. Martin says she recognises the growing need for companies to make sure consumers understand and trust the food they are consuming.

Martin says she recognises the growing need for companies to make sure consumers understand and trust the food they are consuming

“There are products being made with ingredients and additives that consumers don’t know or understand, such as E numbers. However, we have to remember that all the additives and ingredients the food industry uses in its products have been assessed from a scientific point of view by food safety authorities [EFSA in Europe] as being perfectly safe. So it is more a question of perception, transparency and clear communication. I can understand that when consumers see a recipe with ingredients they don’t recognise, it can be off-putting.”

She continues: “What we have therefore started to do, is try to simplify our recipes as much as possible on one hand and to name ingredients in a way that consumers can recognise them on the other. For example, replacing citric acid with citrus juice gives exactly the same functionality, yet using a name people can immediately recognize and understand. Overall, we have to remember that beyond the processing aspect of foods, what matters most of all when we choose the products we eat, is their nutritional quality.”

Food for health and pleasure

In recent years, Danone has made some clear portfolio choices into healthier food categories. Today, around 90 per cent of the products it sells, are considered to be in categories that are ‘good for daily consumption’.

“When I first joined the company 28 years ago, we used to have a diverse food and beverage portfolio with many ‘indulgent’ categories. That’s changed since the 1990s, and in line with our mission of bringing health through food to as many people as possible, we have focused on the healthier part of the portfolio with businesses now focused on essential dairy and plant-based foods, waters, early life and medical nutrition” says Martin.

Since the 1990s, and in line with our mission of bringing health through food to as many people as possible, we have focused on the healthier part of the portfolio

Although she stresses that Danone does not plan to fully eliminate products with higher amounts of fats, sugars and salt. “Food is a source of pleasure and a healthy, balanced diet can sometimes include some foods that are a little bit richer in sugar or fat for special occasions, in reasonable quantities.”

The key, says Martin, is how Danone communicates these products. “For example, we do not promote daily consumption of these products through our marketing efforts, and we usually propose these more indulgent choices in limited portion sizes, through tailored packaging.”

Caring for the elderly and patient care

Food and drink products for the elderly and frail is another important area, and Danone increasingly draws on behavioural as well as nutritional science to create tailored products for specific needs.

“Health conditions, such as cancer, can affect a person’s sense of taste. So we’ve adapted the flavouring of certain specialized nutrition products to take this into account,” says Martin.

Danone increasingly draws on behavioural as well as nutritional science to create tailored products for specific needs

Another distinct group – the elderly and frail – sometimes struggle to finish a full bottle of medical nutrition, leading Danone to incorporate the same amount of nutrients into a smaller volume.

“And as digital technologies and data driven insights continue to expand, we’re also starting to see the industry explore customizing probiotics tailored and formulated to a person’s digestive DNA,” says Martin. 

Such tailored innovations aren’t always products. Building on insights from behavioural science, these can also be digital innovations like apps that help parents and carers monitor and manage nutrition intake of children with allergies.

Children’s drinks

One of the biggest areas for growth in the healthier foods category could be in childhood drinks. Martin says Danone has been working to promote healthy hydration for kids. The company has been developing its range of both natural spring and flavoured water drinks to make them more appealing to younger consumers.

“Kids are really attracted to consuming sugary beverages so we’re trying to design our drinks to have the same kind of pleasure, but with a reduced sugar or even no sugar intake.

“We are using fun characters on the packaging of bottled water specifically to appeal to children. This is the kind of role we really want to embrace, to help take consumers where they are and help them make healthier eating and drinking choices,” says Martin.

By Will Surman

Director, Public Affairs and Communications

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