Close-Up: Live Issue - Are consumers shunning junk food?

Is Walkers' £20m makeover of its crisps a sign of changing attitudes to eating, Claire Billings asks.

Last week, Walkers announced a £20 million overhaul of its production process, making its crisps healthier by reducing their fat and salt content.

As of last Friday, the saturated-fat content of a bag of Walkers Crisps was reduced by 70 per cent.

Cooked in "sunseed" oil (which is, like olive oil, high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturates, according to the Walkers marketing director, Carol Garbutt), a bag of Walkers now contains less saturated fat than half a chocolate digestive biscuit. What's more, it contains the same amount of salt as a slice of bread.

The launch will be supported by an ad campaign starring the Walkers brand icon Gary Lineker and developed by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, from 1 March.

Companies such as PepsiCo, Walkers' parent, don't spend £20 million on a whim. Behind this shift is a realisation that education and media coverage are having an effect: consumers have become increasingly aware of what they eat and the consequences of eating it, and food companies must respond.

"What this relaunch allows us to say is that Walkers are better for you," Garbutt explains.

The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and the TV nutritionist Dr Gillian McKeith have played a large part in this shift in attitudes. Their respective shows - Jamie's School Dinners and You Are What You Eat - have captured the public's imagination with shocking revelations about the content of junk food and the damage it can do.

Add to these government initiatives such as the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, health scares such as foot-and-mouth disease and BSE, and rising concerns about genetically modified food, and you end up with a very food-conscious public. It's no longer just about vanity - people are concerned about their wellbeing as well as their waistlines.

There is a school of thought that a contributing factor to Walkers' rival Golden Wonder's descent into administration was its failure to react quickly enough to changing consumer tastes.

Even McDonald's, under fire from negative publicity such as the film Super Size Me and blamed for a rise in child obesity, began to offer salads and low-fat alternatives to its staples, the Big Mac and the cheeseburger.

It even encourages children to exercise more as part of a drive to make people more responsible for their health.

Other brands, such as Kellogg, United Biscuits (the owner of Skips and Hula Hoops) and the Unilever-owned Birds Eye, have announced changes to their products to make them healthier and thus more attractive to consumers.

Changes to existing product lines have coincided with product launches that aim to help health-conscious consumers achieve the holy grail of five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Hero Foods is launching a fruit drink called Fruit2day, which provides two of these portions in a bid to compete with the likes of Innocent smoothies. Other products, such as yoghurts, continue to evolve to tap into this growing market.

Whether it is a result of health scares, TV programmes or education, consumer tastes are undoubtedly changing. Walkers might not produce the healthiest of snacks but, by taking drastic action, it at least appears to take its customers' needs seriously.

- Leader, page 22

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CLIENT - Carol Garbutt, marketing director, Walkers

"We've been listening to consumers, and they are telling us that their needs are changing. They still need a great-tasting snack to eat, but they also want one that is better for them.

"The decision to change comes from meeting consumer needs and keeping their trust. That has led to the biggest change in our product in our history: Walkers crisps are now 70 per cent lower in fat than they were before, and that's a powerful statement. We have reduced salt in our crisps now too.

"Anything that helps consumers make better, informed choices about how they achieve a balanced diet has got to be a good thing."

AGENCY HEAD - Neil Christie, managing director, Wieden & Kennedy

"The food trend is not just about losing weight, but also about looking younger and enjoying life more, and manufacturers and retailers are responding to that.

"Different companies will do different things. Some, such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer, will see it as their responsibility to educate people, whereas others are responding to changing tastes.

"Walkers is responding to public pressure. They manufacture something that is not healthy - fried potato. If you are in a position where people become more concerned every time they eat a bag of crisps, then you have to do something to make people feel they're not as bad for you as they might be."

NUTRITIONIST - Dr Gillian McKeith, TV presenter and author

"The tide is changing. People are sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and they're making the connection between how they feel and what they eat. We're on a wave of a mind shift and it's really exciting to be part of it.

"There's still a lot to do. I've been doing vox pops in shopping malls and I was surprised by the increase in public awareness. There's more information available.

"I welcome any positive change towards healthier eating, but consumers have to demand it. If people go into their shops and ask for specific products, they will order them in."

ACADEMIC - Douglas Holt, professor of marketing, University of Oxford

"In the US, Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me seeded the idea that corporate provisioning of food caused obesity. The media picked up on these stories, and anointed an 'obesity crisis'. This was a cultural disruption: suddenly, obesity was a national menace. So all the players involved - politicians, the schools, the big food companies - had to respond.

"In the UK, you've got Jamie Oliver leading the charge in the lunchrooms. The UK incumbents had little incentive to disrupt the food culture until now. But consumer food preferences will shift and regulators are swooping in. The likes of Walkers have to respond in a defensive way."