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Packaging can only do so much to promote healthy eating says Des King

So much then for information leaflets, on-pack warnings and labels crammed full of information. Invariably singled out as the front-end tool responsible for consumer and product protection, in the final analysis packaging can only ever really be just so much lip-gloss. Rubbish in means rubbish out, as illustrated by the Sudan 1 crisis.

If processed foods need a little carcinogen-inducing red dye to spike them up, why are we eating them at all? Everyone in the food chain might be seeking to shift blame for how Sudan 1 slipped its way into the microwave meal, but consumers’ appetites for a no hassle culinary experience show no sign of having been dulled.

Meanwhile, assembling the fresh ingredients for a meat and two veg supper is apparently a bridge too far for most. You’d think the time saved via convenience foods could be better used than by watching a battery of on-screen celebrity chefs preparing the real thing.

Of course, some ready-meals are top notch and not all processed convenience is bad. It’s just not always as wholesome as it might be. Not for consumers – who, if Jamie Oliver is correct, are storing up troubles from the moment they totter into the school canteen – nor for the packaging industry, which definitely isn’t deriving as much nourishment as it deserves from its on-shelf dominance. Anecdotal evidence abounds of ready-meal product tenders being awarded at 50% below cost. Certainly not much margin there then.

Anyone who believes a label will dictate consumer behavioural preferences needs their head examining. Well-presented, market directed packaging, however, can drive a trend. Milk products are experiencing a playground upswing, not because the calcium content forms whiter, healthier teeth, but because kids respond positively to vending machines. Good luck to Tetra Pak amongst others for remembering that distribution is what so often counts, and developing a carton bottle pack format that delivers the goods.

By and large, people will eat what they’re given – provided it conforms to whatever expectation has been implanted in the first place. There’s no rule that says food must be junk, harmful, obesity forming or even convenient. Of the many roles it must fulfill, packaging performs best in protective and presentational terms. Let it do its job. Give it a worthier product to really get its teeth into.