As new regulations for the sale of HFSS goods roll out in the UK, we explore their impact and their implications for New Product Development (NPD) teams.

In December 2021, the UK government announced new regulations governing the promotion of products containing high levels of fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). The regulations relate to product promotions by location, volume price, and mediums such as TV and online advertising.


If your company produces or sells HFSS foods, you're free to continue doing so. However, the way you promote these products to the public is restricted. These include, for instance, limiting advertising timeslots to after 9pm and having restrictions on point-of-sale promotions to curb impulse spending.


The new HFSS regulations have been a hot topic over the past few months. Despite early scepticism, with most believing the HFSS regulations will not be effective in reducing childhood obesity, early trials spearheaded by big brands including Unilever, Kellogg’s and Innocent, saw sales for HFSS products drop by 20% when the trial restrictions were in place. We will, however, explore in this article whether these drops will be sustainable going forward.

Why did the UK government begin issuing HFSS regulations?

The government began limiting the promotion and resultant sales of HFSS foods for public health concerns. For instance, studies have linked excessive consumption of these foods to childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Evidence has shown that a more balanced approach to advertising food and drink can encourage healthier lifestyle choices from a younger age. Therefore, in a similar vein to restrictions placed on cigarette advertising, the government does not want to be seen as encouraging the consumption of HFSS foods (while still allowing free choice for consumers).

Are there any exceptions to HFSS regulations?

Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from HFSS regulations. Chocolatiers and confectioners are also exempt as they are recognised as ‘specialist retailers’. Since their entire floor space is devoted to HFSS foods, it would be impossible to limit product display to lower-profile locations. However, they must comply with volume price promotion restrictions. The provisions based on employee headcount are determined based on total employment by a firm, not location-specific staffing. The government is therefore targeting its HFSS rules towards medium and large enterprises where the public does most of its shopping. 

In essence, HFSS rules mean that, apart from businesses with exemptions, those who sell or produce HFSS foods can’t market them as intensively as they did in the past.

Are HFSS regulations working?

Early success indicators of HFSS regulations seemed positive - with caveats. Reports of a reduction in HFSS product sales throughout October 2022 showed promising results. According to Reapp, one large confectionary supplier experienced a sales drop of 3.98% in October 2022 from October 2021. Despite this, the weekend before Halloween saw a 52.11% increase In Year-on-Year sales, demonstrating that regardless of the restrictions, consumer demand for HFSS products are still likely to surge around key occasions such as Halloween, Christmas and Easter, regardless of restrictions on in-store placement.

More recently, independent observers are reporting that up to 25% of stores either aren’t complying or are finding ways to circumvent the rule. For example, they’re placing unpackaged HFSS goods like store-bakery doughnuts in prominent locations. It’s not against the new regulation, but it certainly doesn’t align with its intended goal. 

In response to non-compliance findings by independent bodies, government agencies say that they don’t have sufficient resources to police the rule. Instead, they’re faced with inadequate staffing, insufficient funds, and competing priorities. Will these issues be addressed, and will other HFSS regulations achieve better compliance? It seems likely that the lack of voluntary compliance will prompt more stringent enforcement in the future - particularly once all the regulations have come into effect. 

But other problems are rearing their heads. Even when they comply, supermarkets must find something else to display in high-profile locations - and the products they’re choosing may be questionable. Despite early success indicators showing a reduction in everyday HFSS consumption, the new product placement regulations have increased promotions in other not-so-healthy categories. It seems that many businesses have chosen alcoholic drinks to fill the now-empty spaces at checkouts and aisle ends. It was reported that in October 2022, off-fixture displays promoting alcoholic drinks increased by 57% from October 2021. Additionally, retailers are increasingly finding new workarounds for the regulations by moving off-fixture displays to permitted areas.

What do the HFSS regulations mean for New Product Development (NPD)?

For companies that take HFSS regulations seriously, NPD has been impacted. The categorisation of HFSS products has limited recipe formulation for those who wish to escape the category. With 71% of UK sales at 16 of the largest food and beverage manufacturers generated by unhealthy products, this presents a huge challenge.


Developing healthy new products that still taste great

Apart from the immediate financial impact of reduced sales of existing products, the rules are impacting NPD for popular brands. For example, major players like Mars have been getting ahead of the game. The brand launched its HFSS-compliant chocolate bar, the ‘Triple Treat,’ in June 2022.

Companies that are developing new products should take a long-term view. With restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods already in place or on the horizon, there’s potential for more stringent regulations to be passed shortly. Those who can develop products that are both delicious and healthy are likely to have a competitive advantage.

Reinventing older products 

NPD teams may need to reformulate existing products to reduce salt, fat and sugar content to avoid restrictions on product marketing. In addition, NPD teams will have to develop new packaging designs to reflect their compliance with regulations. The costs associated with these changes can be significant and may impact the profitability of consumer goods.

Finding new ways to enhance flavour

Fat, salt and sugar all play a major role in the taste, shelf life and texture of consumer products. Food and drink manufacturers are now tasked with the challenge of ensuring that altered HFSS-compliant recipes do not compromise any of these aspects, most importantly, taste. 

If consumers do not like the taste of reformulated products, then any resources spent on product alterations will have been wasted. NPD teams will have to ensure that reformulation maintains the flavours that made their original products successful.

To keep the flavour while cutting down on the HFSS profile, new ingredients will have to be discovered, tested, and explored. For example, non-nutritive sweeteners are an obvious alternative, but sweetness-enhancing additives can boost the sensory effect of ordinary sugar - you use less of it, but it tastes sweeter.

Replacing saturated fats with an unsaturated equivalent presents an additional, but not insurmountable, challenge. The British Baker reports success with reformulated recipes that result in up to 65% fat reduction. 

Regulations ensure that shortcuts won’t work

It’s important to note that the HFSS criteria have been carefully designed to prevent food and drink businesses from disguising HFSS products. For example, they might add a positive nutritional component such as fibre to the ingredients. This might allow them to market it as a nutritious product, using the added ingredient to draw focus away from the negative ingredients. But HFSS regulations don’t allow for this type of distraction. If it’s HFSS, no “healthy” addition will exempt it from restricted marketing, NPD managers must work hard to reformulate entire recipes to reduce levels of fat, salt and sugar before making attempts to introduce healthier nutritional elements.

NPD challenges aren’t insurmountable

NPD departments face a challenging task. They will be tasked with developing futureproof new products that will stand up to the challenges of current legislation and potentially, even stricter future laws that support the regulatory battle against obesity. The challenge is no longer limited to developing products that appeal to consumers. Instead, they must combine quality flavours with consideration for the health of consumers. 

These aren’t impossible challenges, but there’s plenty of work in store for those responsible for product development. They’re aware that although it may be off to a slow start in terms of rollout and compliance, HFSS regulations are here to stay - and even stricter regulation is a distinct possibility.

What should businesses expect from HFSS in the future?

There will always be teething problems with rolling out new regulations, but enforcement will become more stringent over time. Those who are already non-compliant will be issued with improvement notices, and failure to comply could result in substantial fines.  A 2020 government impact assessment estimated that this could cost the food industry more than £3.1 million.

There’s still the “small” matter of two of the HFSS regulations awaiting implementation. The primary reasons for their delayed implementation were the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy. Barring yet another unforeseen setback, it seems likely that bans on promotions encouraging higher-volume purchasing, and advertising restrictions will come into force as scheduled.

Further developments can only be guessed at, but just as cigarette sales were subject to progressively higher taxes and restrictions, the possibility of HFSS foods being subject to a similar process isn’t off the cards. 

Foods Connected offers a powerful suite of tools for the food industry, including NPD and product lifecycle management. Our system helps businesses manage workflows and specifications for materials, packaging and manufacturing for real-time collaboration on NPD. To find out more, request a demo of the Foods Connected platform today.