TOKYO -- Nestle's ice creams have a healthy air these days. They taste the same as they always have, but the world's largest food company says they contain 30% less saturated fat than before. That is because Nestle puffs the bars up with air to make them healthier. The Nikkei Asian Review sat down with Jorg Spieldenner, head of public health nutrition at the Nestle Research Center, during his recent visit to Japan, to ask about some of the latest trends in the company's research.
Q: Are people eating too much these days?
A: Yes. The average American eats 3,400 calories a day. That is 600 to 800 calories more than recommended. Asians consume less, maybe 2,400 to 2,600 calories for men, but as Asian society gets richer, Asia, too, will have more overweight and obese people.
People in urban areas don't work in the fields or walk long distances anymore. They take escalators and ride in air-conditioned cars. If you consume more energy than the energy you dispense, you will become overweight. All the research at Nestle regarding why people become overweight shows that it comes down to one thing: calories. There is no conclusive evidence that a certain type of food makes you overweight or obese.
So at Nestle, we try to do two things. One, we want our customers to eat smaller portions, and we do that by [using] smaller packaging. The other is to reduce so called negative nutrients and increase positive nutrients.
Q: How do you persuade people to eat smaller portions?
A: For example, we have a very advanced technology for ice cream, where we blend the ice cream with air. By doing that we can reduce saturated fatty acids by more than 30%, and reduce sugar content. When people eat ice cream, they want a lasting experience. It is the duration that is important. With our air technology the duration is the same and the taste is unchanged, so the reaction has been very good. That, we think, is an advanced approach to reducing portion size.
Q: Isn't that just watering down the content?
A: An ice cream is a snack, and not a part of the daily meal. It is not the most healthy food, but if you have it once in a while, while walking along the beach, it is a wonderful thing.
I understand your criticism, but as a consumer, if the ice cream is lower in saturated fat and lower in sugar, I strongly welcome such a product. It fits our approach of creating value for the consumer. We believe this is the right strategy.
Q: You mentioned cutting the unhealthy things in food. How do you do that?
A: We are making heavy efforts to reduce the salt content of prepackaged pizza in the U.S. Last year alone, we managed to reduce salt by 30%. We also have recipe proposals, for example, suggesting [serving] pizza with salad and other healthy items. We believe this can help the consumer construct his or her diet in an appropriate and balanced way.
Q: People eat pizza because it is easy and quick. Would they spend time chopping up a salad?
A: In every supermarket in the U.S. you can find salads that are washed and cut already. It takes less time to prepare than heating up the pizza. We have to follow the modern consumer and understand the patterns of their food use.
When reducing salt by 30%, you have to win the taste battle. It is difficult to compete with a competitor that uses more salt. On top of that, the classical problem in the U.S. is that the American customer does not eat pizza without cheese. Of all the ingredients in pizza, the highest salt concentration comes from cheese.
You can reduce the salt significantly in the dough, but the consumer just wants more cheese. It is very difficult.
Q: When you compare Nestle's pizza to the unhealthiest pizza on the market, what is the difference?
A: I would say the worst pizzas have 50% more salt and 30-50% more saturated fat.
Q: What are negative and positive nutrients?
A: Negative nutrients are saturated fat, trans fats, sodium and sugar. Positive nutrients are for example protein, fiber, calcium and iron. We look at the foods across our portfolio -- about 10,000 products a year -- and we evaluate the nutrient composition. We do this [using] a very rigorous, scientific approach, and there is a dedicated effort to reduce negative nutrients. Products for children can only be launched if they fulfill a certain threshold for fat, sugar and salt.
In the Philippines, we increased the iron content in our milks because lack of iron was prevalent [among Filipinos]. Here we tried to shift the balance on the positive side, while limiting negative nutrients. We have a clear target for reducing salt, sugar and fat by 10% by 2016, and eliminating trans fats in all our products.
In the U.S., we banned artificial coloring from all our products. We want to be the most innovative food company on the market.
Q: Does healthy food sell better?
A: At the end of the day, the consumer clearly prefers taste over health, so you need to deliver both. It is the biggest challenge we face. We have a procedure called the "60-40 plus" when launching products. A panel of consumers tries our products against competitive products that are already on the market. If 60% of the panel prefer our product above our competitors' we launch it. "Plus" means, it needs to have a nutritional advantage over our competitors' products, for example less negative nutrients or more positive nutrients.
If it doesn't pass the test, we don't launch it. You can bring the healthiest product to the market, but if your consumer doesn't like it, it won't sell.
Consumers often perceive "healthy" as being not tasty. From a marketing point of view, it is difficult to put words such as "healthy" on the front of the package.
Q: Are Asians getting heavier?
A: In Indonesia 55% of children are still stunted, meaning they are too light and too short for their age. Many children are not fed appropriately. The reasons for that are a combination of affordability, availability and the lack of information. Parents feed their kids as they have always done, which sometimes means they may significantly lack iron.
Yet in China and in India, there is the very serious issue of growing child obesity. For parents in China, heavy, overweight babies are a sign of good health and well-being, even if the child is completely off the growth chart.
The problem of a heavy, overweight baby is the effect this has on lifelong health, also known as epigenetics. Through your food intake early on in life, your genes are programmed so that you are prone to stay overweight and obese. In China an alarming 35% of children are overweight or obese.
Q: What would convince them to go to a gym?
A: People go to the gym to look attractive, more than to be healthy. When you look at gym memberships, all across the world, people start going to the gym in springtime to look nice in the summer in a bikini. It reflects the ideals of the society. In the U.S., models in advertisements are always in good shape.
In China and India, overweight children are portrayed as healthy. It will take time until more Chinese and Indians start going to the gym.
Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Ken Moriyasu