Inside Track by Peter Martin
Consumer concerns over health and diet are no fad. They are increasing and producing real and measurable changes in the food market. The sales growth reported by top-end food retailers Waitrose and Marks & Spencer over Christmas and the recent business collapses at Golden Wonder, the snack producer, and Canterbury Foods, once Britain's biggest burger and pastry maker for the fast-food industry and school canteens, are all evidence of a continuing shift in the public's tastes and attitudes to eating and well-being. M&S has seen food sales increase at five times the rate of clothing and home sales, and one analyst has predicted that next year its food business will be bigger than food and clothes combined. Mainstream supermarkets, like Sainsbury's and Tesco's, are also riding the premium food wave. Tesco reported a 30% jump in sales of its upmarket Finest range over Christmas. Worries over health and diet are all tied up with a growing demand for freshness, provenance, tastier and higher quality food. People increasingly want to know where their food comes from, what's in it and how it's prepared - and want a choice too. While 76% of British men and 69% of women are overweight, over half of them say they should be 'doing more' about it. At the same time, half the country says it is 'very concerned' about big health issues like cancer and heart disease, and sees diet as part of the solution. Food and health stories filled last week's national press. Reports ranged from claims from the US that eating oily fish and seeds during pregnancy can boost children's future brain power and social skills, to similar research in the UK that raised fears that changes to diets over the last 50 years may be playing a key role in the rise of mental illness. Then there was the Daily Mirror story of the 20-year-old Sunderland man who ate himself to death on a junk-food diet of chips, toast and baked beans. We are a nation becoming increasingly wrapped up in health and food, even if a significant proportion, particularly the young and the less well-off, do little if nothing about it. The overall trend, however, is real. The demise of Golden Wonder and Canterbury Foods simply highlights those changes. Golden Wonder decided to ignore the growth of low-fat and premium crisp ranges and paid the price. Similarly, Canterbury was slow to spot market shifts, such as the 34% decline in ready-to-eat pies and sausage rolls recorded in the two years up to March last year. While more of the public embrace the healthier food ethos, they still want it made easy. Convenience remains a key driver, and that is the big challenge and opportunity for the eating-out market. When restaurant groups take a healthier and fresher approach they can quickly gain a dividend. Outback, the steak-house chain, is a good example. It has been courted by the British Dental Health Foundation and will benefit from a tie-up with National Smile Week in May. The reason is that all Outback food is freshly prepared on site. There is no processed foods on the menu and no added sugar in dishes, which is all good for the nation's teeth. Similarly, the chain is working on a link-up with organisations representing Britain's 80,000 coeliacs, who suffer from a wheat intolerance, because Outback offers gluten-free menus. Yes, even a restaurant majoring on red meat can embrace and benefit from the growing health eating phenomenon, because these days healthy food isn't about 'faddy' food, it is becoming more and more mainstream. Eating out as become an every-day part of the British way of life, why not eating-out healthily too?