Ditching 'diet' and laying off 'light': Consumers mistrust healthy processed foods, says Mintel

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

'Consumers no longer see ‘diet’ varieties as a good or healthy option to lose or maintain weight,' said Mintel analyst Katya Witham. © iStock
'Consumers no longer see ‘diet’ varieties as a good or healthy option to lose or maintain weight,' said Mintel analyst Katya Witham. © iStock

Related tags Nutrition Obesity Mintel

The National Obesity Forum's advice to shun processed foods such as low-fat yoghurts and cheeses for whole foods this week has provoked mixed reactions – but consumers are already turning away from foods labelled as low-fat, diet or light, according to Mintel data.

"Eat real food, until you're satisfied. These are foods that are naturally nutrient dense and are minimally altered from their natural state, which will nourish you and satisfy hunger. Avoid fake foods, as much as you can.These are foods that have been highly processed from their natural state with free sugars, highly-processed oils and fortified nutrients, which do not nourish you and will not satisfy hunger.”

This was the advice from a report published this week​ by the UK's National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration, a non-profit organisation dedicated to informing and implementing healthy decisions.

The National Obesity Forum’s list of fake foods to be avoided

1. Fats & Proteins. ​Low-fat cheeses, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat spreads, beans in sauce, flavoured nuts, canned whipped cream

2. Carbohydrates. ​Sugary cereals, refined breads, refined pastas, crisps, biscuits, cakes, dried fruit

3. Drinks. ​Sugary soft drinks, fruit juices, low-fat milk, sugary milkshakes, prepackaged smoothies

4. Oils. ​Sunflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, soya oil and rapeseed oil

cheese allergy intolerance dislike Droits d'auteur grinvalds
Must have been low-fat. © iStock

The 40-page report also urges people to stop counting calories as a means to lose weight. "It is often assumed that excessive caloric intake is the root cause of obesity, but this is untrue. A calorie of food energy can have different metabolic fates depending upon the hormonal stimulation.

"Calorie-focused thinking is inherently biased against high-fat foods, many of which may be protective against obesity and related diseases, and supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are particularly detrimental for those with insulin resistance."

The report's conclusions were slammed by Public Health England, the body which advises the British government on health policy as “irresponsible​”. Its chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone, said: “In the face of all the evidence, calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs and ignore calories is irresponsible,” ​adding that too much saturated fat raises cholesterol and that obesity is caused by consistently consuming too many calories.

Weary and wary of health claims

But, despite this lack of consensus, Mintel data suggests consumers may be turning away from foods labelled diet or light anyway. Amid this backdrop of back-and-forth healthy eating advice and public spats between health policy advisors, nutritionists and doctors, European consumers seem to be growing growing weary and wary of manufactured food.

Mintel analyst, Julia Buech, told FoodNavigator: “Conflicting dietary advice on low-fat foods will further fuel consumer mistrust of ‘healthy’ claims in processed foods.  Supermarket shelves today offer a vast choice of products outbidding each other with marketing claims, particularly health related ones, which can easily leave consumers overwhelmed and looking for orientation. They find such orientation by looking back to naturally healthy, ‘real’ foods with simpler formulations, familiar recipes and known ingredients.”

The National Obesity Forum's examples of real foods

1. Fats & Proteins.​ Eggs, sardines, mackerel, salmon, beef, chicken (with skin), avocados, olives, full-fat cheese and yoghurt, cream, nuts,
2. Carbohydrates.​ Broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, oranges, lemons, parsnips, beans, legumes, potatoes, fermented breads
3. Drinks.​ Water, tea, herbal tea, fruit tea, coffee, full-fat milk, full-fat cream
4. Oils.​ Beef tallow, butter, coconut oil, ghee, goose fat, lard and cold-pressed olive oil


This is especially being felt in Germany. The market research company asked 1000 adults which foods they prefer to eat in order to lose or maintain weight; foods labelled as ‘diet’ or ‘light’ came in last with only 7%.

healthy fats, unprocessed whole  food  Droits d'auteur yulka3ice
© iStock

At 73%, fresh fruit and vegetables were the most popular choice. Low calorie foods and low fat foods were favoured by around half of respondents (50% and 51% respectively).

Katya Witham, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, said: “While consumers in Germany are becoming increasingly concerned about being overweight, ‘diet’ and ‘light’ food and drink products are coming under increasing scrutiny in regards to their nutritional values and benefits. Given that most consumers want clearer nutritional information and greater ingredient transparency, they no longer see ‘diet’ varieties as a good or healthy option to lose or maintain weight.”

Is there a place for naturally-derived?

Could naturally-derived healthy ingredients, such as stevia, provide a lifejacket to a waning category?

Not necessarily, according to Buech. These will have “limited power”​ to boost a product’s  image of being whole and unprocessed. “Although consumers equate natural with ‘better for you’, going forward, natural ingredients will only have a lasting positive effect when the product has ‘nothing to hide’, for instance  when high sugar content is not substituting the fat for taste reasons, or when there is no long list of additives on show," ​she said.

“Sugar content in particular has moved into the current line of fire. Overall, transparency is key, with consumers increasingly wanting to know where their food comes from and how it was made.”

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