In an editorial recently published in the British Medical Journal, researchers at Queen Mary University of London suggested there is a close relationship between obesity and COVID-19 and that the food industry shares the blame not only for the obesity pandemic, but also for the severity of COVID-19 disease.
In the UK, for instance, individuals who were overweight or obese made up 78% of the confirmed COVID-19 infections and 62% of the COVID-19 deaths in hospitals.
“The obesity pandemic is not the fault of individuals, but the result of living in a food environment where it is very difficult not to over-consume calories; putting us at a much higher risk of type 2 diabetes, strokes, heart disease, cancer, and now COVID-19,” they wrote.
Public health campaigners have also warned of a vicious circle effect with nationwide lockdowns worsening the obesity crisis as people stay at home, exercise less and eat more. Many retailers noted a surge in demand for premium positioned ‘comfort food’, such as champagne and chocolate at the start of the shelter-in-place period.
Healthy eating is a higher priority
Despite this, the coronavirus crisis seems to have reinforced the importance of eating healthily. Market research company Mintel has been tracking consumer attitudes during the pandemic. It conducted a survey between 28 May and 4 June, which found that 36% of US adults considered eating healthy to be a higher priority since the COVID-19 outbreak, with only 8% saying it was a lower priority.
Ninety-three percent of US adults said they chose foods they believed to be healthy at least some of the time, and claims such as low- or no-sugar and high- or added protein are strongly associated with good health, suggesting that healthy eating continues to be important.
Mintel: ‘In Europe, clean label is expectation, not a selling point’
With a global recession looming, however, consumers will be looking to make savings at the supermarket checkout. As manufacturers strive to make products both healthy and affordable, could we see a roll-back on clean label?
“Europe is often cited as being the home of the clean label trend, and leader in clean label innovation. For European consumers, clean label attributes such as ‘no artificial colours’ is an expectation, not a selling point,” she said. “European consumers are unlikely to accept what would be perceived to be the lowering of standards in food and drink products, where clean label ingredients are concerned.”
Private label could battle big brands
Steve Osborn, director and technology scout at food industry consultancy Aurora Ceres, echoed Schofield, saying clean label had become a defining feature of food product development in Western markets and was here to stay – although affordability would be a priority for consumers going forward.
“Lockdown has reduced road traffic but will have increased ‘fridge traffic’ and lifting of restrictions will open the gateway to a flood of ‘New Year’ type resolutions, so healthy products will be important,” he said. “However, with the inevitable recession and the change in the work landscape, household cashflow may be more limited so premium healthy will not necessarily be the way forward.”
Going forward in the post-COVID-19 world, indulgent, natural, healthy, and affordable would be the watch words, which could be a challenge for formulators, Osborn said.
Private label versions of better-for-you, natural and organic products, which have been on the rise, have the potential to win over many budget-conscious shoppers during these uncertain times, with lower-priced store brands creating competition for name brands.
Schofield suggested that consumers may adopt a ‘less-but-better’ approach to buying food and drink as they strive to continue to eat natural and clean label foods.
In any case, the public health crisis and global economic downturn has not sounded the death knell for indulgent, premium foods.
“We will all need cheering up and treating so there will also be a spike in‘so-good-for me’,” said Osborn.