Earlier this year the federal government enforced tough new standards for food brands, which aimed to ensure health claims were only displayed on healthy foods.
The new rules were part of the broader movement to keep consumers informed, and brands were given three years to comply with the new measures.
Last month the entire breakfast cereal range for Uncle Tobys met the nutrition guidelines, way ahead of the government's time range.
But compliance was no easy feat, with the changes representing the culmination of a five year program to reduce fat, sugar, and sodium across the entire range.
Food Magazine sat down with Uncle Tobys’ nutrition manager. Nilani Sritharan to get an insight into what happens behind the scenes when major brands modify recipes and make healthy changes.
Slow and steady
Sritharan told Food Magazine one of the key challenges to making any change was ensuring customers stayed on-side.
Consumers grow to expect a certain taste and texture with food products, and changing a winning formula can be risky, even if the change is for the better.
In order to keep customers on-side Sritharan said Uncle Tobys, like other brands, had made healthy improvements in small steps instead of introducing an immediate change.
“If we make the whole change in one go it's just too much for customers to find acceptable,” she said.
“But if you make those changes gradually you may find people don't detect a change in taste.”
Marking Cheerios as a good example, Sritharan said since 2008 Cheerios had seen a 40 percent reduction in sodium, and a fall in sugar from 20 percent to just under 15 percent.
Fibre has also been increased by about 25 percent, and wholegrain content has risen by a similar margin.
While Cheerios customers still place an emphasis on taste, Uncle Tobys was able to introduce significant changes without driving off customers, and Sritharan said the improvement was in-line with broad trends in the breakfast cereal category.
“Overall consumers do expect an Uncle Tobys cereal to be a healthy choice, and these changes are about ensuring we continue to push for what consumers expect,” she said.
Show me the money
While Uncle Tobys has been able to make the transition without losing customers, Sritharan said the changes still required a significant investment of time and money.
“It can be quite a challenge, particularly when you're making quite significant changes over time or you want to keep the shape of the product,” she said.
Part of the challenge stems the balancing act brands play in building the same product with different ingredients.
But Sritharan said in most cases healthy improvements meant tweaking existing practices rather than developing entirely new procedures.
“I don't think it fundamentally changes the manufacturing process but you may find there are changes in texture or stickiness that we would have to work through and adjust for,” she said.
“For example with Cheerios increasing the wholegrain content can sometimes make the Cheerio a bit softer or affect the loop shape itself.
“So looking at some of the mixed grains we have in there, we have to try and balance that out.”
Sritharan said managing the manufacturing process was not the only challenge Uncle Tobys faced in improving nutrition.
"There's a significant cost not just in terms of more expensive ingredients, but also in resources,” she said.
“There's a lot of time spent developing new recipes to try and work towards the nutrient criteria, as well as examining shelf life and other important conditions.
“We've got to spend quite a bit of time developing the recipe and getting it to work once it goes to factory trials.”
A healthy conscience
On top of responding to demands from consumers and regulators, Sritharan told Food Magazine Uncle Tobys introduced healthy changes based on its own corporate values.
“There is an element of responsibility, sodium is probably a good example of that,” she said.
“It wasn't so much that we wanted to make a big song and dance about it, but we simply wanted to be reducing sodium in cereals where we felt we could do that.”
And while not all products react well to healthy changes, Sritharan said Uncle Tobys cereals had continued to stay popular in the market, with consumers supporting the changes.
“At the end of the day, we make 44 cereals and our impact is quite significant and we take that quite seriously,” she said.