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‘We’re doing it by stealth’: how Tesco is reformulating its much-loved meals to be healthier
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‘We’re doing it by stealth’: how Tesco is reformulating its much-loved meals to be healthier

How can we improve the health of our nation? That’s the question troubling everyone from politicians and public health experts, to parents and supermarket bosses. But while information about health and nutrition is more widely available than ever, we’re not getting any healthier.

Rates of obesity among children are particularly concerning, with a sharp rise during the pandemic – which has dropped slightly, but is still higher than pre-pandemic levels. Now, just under a quarter of children in England are living with obesity by the time they leave primary school, which experts predict will put immense strain on the NHS in the coming decades.

We all want our children to be happy and healthy, and our family to eat well, but many of us are struggling with constraints around time and money that lead us to rely heavily on cheap, ultra-processed convenience foods.

Tesco, the UK’s largest food retailer, is stepping up to help make the nation’s diet healthier. Aware of the limitations on people’s time and finances, Tesco’s goal is to make healthier eating more accessible by reformulating some of its most popular products. And that’s why I’ve come to visit its test kitchen in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, to find out more about the work going on.

Quote: “People aren’t going to spend money on healthy food that won’t get eaten. So we’re taking small steps with reformulation”View image in fullscreen
Overhead shot of ingredients - tomatoes, basil, onionsView image in fullscreen

“My job is to work out how we make our products more affordable, more inspiring, more relevant and healthier,” says Karen Poole, Tesco’s head of healthy and sustainable diets. “The barriers that prevent customers making healthier choices include taste, affordability and family preference. In other words: will the kids eat it?

“People aren’t going to spend money on healthy food that won’t get eaten. With many of us back to pre-pandemic hours at work, and commuting, we don’t have the time or the energy for dinnertime dramas. So at Tesco we’re taking small steps with reformulation.”

On a practical level, reformulation means looking at Tesco’s most popular ready meals and snacks, and tweaking the ingredients to make them healthier. There have been some big steps over the years – such as removing hydrogenated fat from its own-brand products in 2007, and reducing the sugar in soft drinks in 2016 – but most of the changes are happening gradually.

Poole describes recently sampling a Tesco own-brand cornflake made to a formulation from 15 years ago, stating that the high levels of salt were astonishing. Removing the salt overnight wouldn’t have worked, as people who liked the original product would stop buying it, but nudging it down slowly over time has had a huge impact. “It’s been such a big part of what we do for such a long time,” she says. “We’ve been slowly removing sugar and salt from our products for years.”

Executive chef Jamie Robinson preparing food with quote: “The sweetness and texture of more veg improves the product”View image in fullscreen

Recent success stories include taking more sugar and salt out of Tesco’s own-brand baked beans. “[Beans are] a family staple, so it’s one where we don’t want to get it wrong because kids will know if it suddenly tastes different,” says Poole.

Of course, this process is not only about what is removed from the products, but also what is added in: namely more vegetables and fibre. With less than a third of adults reaching their recommended five-a-day, this is powerful. “We’re doing it by stealth,” says Poole. “Our development chefs use their culinary knowledge in our test kitchen to think: ‘How would I make this healthier if I was cooking it at home?’ We’ve added in more mushrooms to our Italian ready meals, and reduced the meat content slightly.”

If you’re thinking that customers might feel short changed with less meat, the opposite has proved to be true. “We do quite comprehensive product quality testing, which we call the ‘liking score’, and what’s been really great about the new lasagne and bolognese recipes is that customers actually prefer the new version, with more veg,” says Poole.

Much like a parent sneaking some extra veg into their fussy child’s spag bol, Tesco’s development chefs are coaxing us into eating more healthily. “I do it with my kids too,” says Jamie Robinson, Tesco’s executive chef, as he shows me around the test kitchen where his team of development chefs work their magic. “You can see diced mushrooms in the lasagne and bolognese meals, but there are also shredded mushrooms in the sauce, which makes it richer and more silky. Sometimes, when you talk about reformulation, people have negative connotations about how it’s going to taste before they try it. But actually the sweetness and texture of more veg improves the product.”

Overhead shot of ingredients - squash, mushrooms, lentilsView image in fullscreen
Quote: “While there’s a place for ‘meat mimics’, Root & Soul is all about delicious vegetable centrepieces”View image in fullscreen

Robinson says the Italian category is hugely important, since shoppers love Italian food – and Tesco has slowly been making its pizzas healthier, as well as adding extra fibre to its garlic bread. “People think pizza is unhealthy, but I think it has that reputation because of the ultra-processed toppings that have been used for so long,” he says. “We use a good, honest tomato sauce, and we’re always looking at ways to fortify the base with different grains.”

Avoiding ultra-processed foods is something that is high on many people’s healthy eating agenda, so another priority is to ensure that the ingredients label is as familiar as possible to customers. It’s very reassuring that the ingredients listed on Tesco ready meals do not contain the E numbers, emulsifiers and maltodextrin that we see in so many convenience foods.

Robinson, who used to work for chef Marco Pierre White, describes his first visit to the factory to see the lasagne being made: “There was a tonne batch of the bolognese sauce cooking, and I was looking around at the ingredients, which were just onions, carrots, mince – like you’d have at home, but massive stacks of them,” he says. “It’s real food. The only ingredient that you might not have at home is cornflour, which we use for the texture, but lots of Asian cooking includes cornflour. It’s a normal ingredient.”

Karen Poole and Jamie Robinson with quote: “It’s not just about eating healthily - it’s about expressing love and taking care of your family”View image in fullscreen

As well as tweaking some of the nation’s favourite dishes to be healthier, Robinson is excited about Tesco’s newest brand, Root & Soul, which is part of its “plant forward” initiative, with a focus on wholegrains and pulses. “Everyone knows they need to eat more vegetables,” he says, “and, while there’s a place for ‘meat mimics’, Root & Soul is all about delicious vegetable centrepieces. They’re all great on their own as a meal or, if you’re cooking for more people, as a side. There’s a butternut squash, caramelised onion and pecorino one that is delicious with a Sunday lunch. We absolutely want to drive the agenda on making veg super tasty.”

Tesco has long had a target to increase sales of healthy products as a proportion of total sales to 65% by 2025. “We got to 58% by the end of 2022, and 60% by the end of last year, so we’re on track,” says Poole. She acknowledges the responsibility that comes with providing so much of the nation’s food, and doesn’t take it lightly.

“Tesco has a massive role to play,” she says. “We have been learning so much about why people make the choices they do. Because food is so personal and, for our customers, it’s not just about eating healthily – it’s about expressing love and taking care of your family. Nothing is more important than that.”

Find out more about how Tesco is working to improve the health of the nation at tesco.com/better-baskets

Source: theguardian.com