The incredible shrinking chocolate bars
The war on sugar has become the new great noble cause of public-health crusaders. But news this week confirms that the main effect of it will be to make consumers that little bit worse off in return for zero health benefit.
Public Health England has been pushing food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar in their products. Its ideal outcome would be ‘reformulation’ – that is, making the same product, just with less sugar than before. But reformulation is not easy. How do you reduce the amount of sugar in a chocolate bar – a very sugary product – while not adversely affecting its flavour and texture? The answer is: with difficulty.
Using artificial sweeteners is one route, but they don’t have the same flavour as sugar, so many people dislike them. And while it is comparatively easy to put sweetener in a soft drink like Diet Coke, it does have an impact on the texture – the ‘mouth feel’ – of the drink. This is an even bigger challenge with a solid block of chocolate, in which sugar is one of the main ingredients.
There have been developments. Food giant Nestlé, makers of such staples as KitKat and Aero, announced at the end of last year that, after devoting squillions of pounds to research, it had found a way to change the form in which sugar is used so that less of it can provide the same experience of sweetness. But this may not prove to be as straightforward in practice.
These problems lead us to an alternative way to cut sugar: reduce the portion size. So it was no surprise that Nestlé has now admitted that one way to meet PHE’s targets is to simply make chocolate bars smaller.
There has already been controversy about this kind of move. At the end of last year, Mondelez announced it was increasing the space between the triangles of its Toblerone bars, with the effect of reducing the weight of the bar. Mondelez’s reason wasn’t health, but the rising cost of ingredients. Nonetheless, the row over Toblerone shows that simply cutting the size of bars can cause considerable irritation to chocolate lovers.
Whizz-bang technological breakthroughs aside, the goal of reducing sugar in our food is likely to mean reducing how much chocolate bar we get for our money. The effect on health of all this will be vanishingly small. Lopping 20 per cent off a four-finger KitKat (213 calories) will reduce calorie intake by just over 40 calories – about the same as a quarter of a slice of buttered toast. Our lives will be just that little less enjoyable for no discernible benefit.
And when this dramatic action utterly fails to cut obesity rates, the public-health headbangers will come back demanding yet more action. Maybe it’s the sugar obsessives who should ‘take a break’.
Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.