The nation’s general health has been in stark focus over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Studies quickly showed that obesity puts people at higher risk of more severe infection and death. 

It prompted a debate about whether or not the pandemic could, would and should be a catalyst to introducing significant changes to the way we live our lives in order to improve our health. And then the Chancellor made cheap, unhealthy fast food even cheaper as part of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. It sparked a backlash among health campaigners - “On one hand we are hearing that tackling obesity is an urgent public health challenge, but on the other we are seeing actions that we know do not help us reduce obesity,” said one professor.

As we (hopefully) near the end of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, attention is now turning to how the food and drink industry can keep health at the forefront of our minds. 

It was the focus of discussion on a recent roundtable of industry entrepreneurs hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre

Low income struggles

Several academic studies have shown that people on low incomes have been hit hardest by the pandemic. And with the link between low incomes/poverty and obesity, there are growing concerns that the pandemic will make it more difficult for people on low incomes to access healthy food. 

Susan Gafsen, co-founder of Pep & Lekker, admitted that small, independent, healthy food and drink brands struggle to compete with large brands when it comes to price. 

She said: “Organic and natural ingredients are, by definition, much more expensive than synthetic and processed ingredients. If you want to make healthy, artisan, handmade products in small quantities using sustainable packaging, you’ve got a much higher cost. 

“That is the biggest challenge I’ve faced since starting the business. I’ve always been determined to balance a healthy, natural, sustainable product with the right price point [making Pep & Lekker products affordable to everyone, while making a profit], but this is a constant struggle.”

It was a sentiment echoed throughout the conversation, particularly supported by Elise Daly, founder of Wonderchup

“We have tried to make a completely healthy product and totally rebuild ketchup. We use organic ingredients, 65% tomatoes, and we add vitamins to every single Wonderchup product to make them as healthy as possible. That makes it much more expensive than Heinz or any other ketchup brand,” she said.

Nicola Hart, founder of Agua de Madre, said there is a “constant tension” within the industry balancing offering a truly healthy product and consumers wanting prices to be more inline with mainstream brands they’re used to. 

Nicola pointed to a growing number of services designed to help people on low incomes to access food. She highlighted the work of Too Good To Go, founded by a former GBEA winner Jamie Crummie, which is primarily used to reduce food waste. But Nicola explained that Agua de Madre sets aside a portion of its production to give to Too Good To Go so that people on low incomes are able to access healthy food.  

Reshaping education

Maria King, co-founder of Junius, suggested that consumers need to be encouraged to focus not on calorie counting, but instead to consider the nutritional value of their food. 

She explained: “As a company, we give out a lot of unbiased, free information about the key nutrients in our food and drink. The depth of this knowledge is part of our engagement with new audiences and customers. We use food as a vehicle to impart information.

“If we look at food education at a basic level, consumers are often looking at the calorific profile of a plate. However this is not the complete picture”. 

Maria suggested that consumers should look at aspects such as the phytonutrients found within natural foods. She said: “I did an Instagram Live session on female hormone health recently. I was talking about broccoli, the phytonutrients in broccoli and why it’s good for female hormones.”

Dafna Bonas, founder of Indie Bay Snacks, believes that education around healthy food is now really starting to penetrate into the wider population.

“The education that I’m hearing about is such an important part, and we already see awareness penetrating through to the population in a way we didn’t see even 5-10 years ago,” she started.

“We did not see the same conversations taking place around health and wellness, and better ingredients. These things were on the minds of the ‘converted elite’, but are now becoming so much more mainstream.” 

Switching focus and taking ownership

While Dafna praised the amount of education available to the public now, she also called for government, organisations and businesses to switch the focus of their efforts around healthy food and drink. 

“If we look at the stick and the carrot analogy, the stick only goes so far on mass level,” she began. “Making people feel worried and scared is less effective in the long-run than the carrot.

“The solutions that we present as food and drink brands need to have mass appeal, they need to be accessible, affordable and meaningful to change the broader paradigm of the foods that people bring into their homes and consume every day, or else we’re not going to make the difference we need to make.” 

Drawing on her experience with focus groups, Maria argued that there is now a clear shift towards people wanting to take control of their health, and wanting to understand more about what is good for them.

Explaining that she saw people switch to non-alcoholic drinks over the course of the pandemic, Ellie Webb, founder of Caleño, believes consumers are now demanding more options from the hospitality sector as restrictions ease. 

She said: “What we’re finding now is that, coming out of lockdown restrictions with people free to go out and socialise again, they are becoming more demanding of pubs and restaurants. They’re wanting to take those healthier habits that they’ve formed during lockdown into those settings.

“So we’re now seeing larger chains coming to us, interested in stocking our drinks and other non-alcoholic drinks, because customers are demanding more balance on their drinks menus.

 “Like Maria said, people are definitely taking more ownership over their physical and mental wellbeing.”

Supermarket shift

Charlie Knockton, founder of Happy Inside Drinks, eats a gluten-free diet and believes healthy food and drink brands will follow the trajectory of that gluten-free market. 

“I was diagnosed with colitis 10 years ago, so I had to start following a gluten-free diet,” he said. “And in that time, the difference in the market is colossal. I can only see functional, healthy foods going the same way.”

“As our businesses and segments continue to grow, price and accessibility is all going to improve with scale,” Charlie added.

Amber Fraser, founder of Brave Foods, believes that process has already started. She said: “Retailers are now massively shifting their strategies towards healthier, innovative products. So, I think that brings scale for all of us, and comes with price and cost reductions across the entire supply chain. 

“Over the next five years, we’re going to see a massive shift with the likes of Sainsbury’s and Tesco leading the way.”

Elise added: “Every time I speak to buyers, they’re after all the things we’re talking about. They want to do the right thing, nobody doesn’t want to do the right thing. 

“We’re really not far away, just slightly interrupted by the pandemic. But it won’t be long before we’re back on the same page.”

Collaboration not competition

A common theme throughout these roundtable discussions, whether the focus has been on sustainability or health, has been the idea of collaboration not competition. Many of the entrepreneurs involved operate within the same markets. But what is striking is how they don’t see each other as rivals competing to win sales from consumers. Instead, they see each other as vital partners in working towards a common goal of better health or greater sustainability. 

Speaking after the roundtable, Emma Maile, hospitality sector director at haysmacintyre, said: “It was fascinating hearing from these entrepreneurs and their passion for building health conscious, sustainable businesses. The current climate presents a perfect storm between the increasing demand for these products versus the ability to provide these at affordable prices. As consumer demand increases there is an optimism that healthy, sustainable businesses will become viable businesses to the mass market, rather than just those who can afford them.