The Doughnut Wars Are Here

It just so happens—and Fletcher maintains that this timing was a coincidence—that as he was mulling over the prospect of a low-fat, low-sugar doughnut, the UK government was limbering up to introduce legislation to restrict how and where unhealthy foods are sold.

The new rules, which came into force in October 2022, ban the sale of certain foods high in fat, sugar, and salt near supermarket entrances, on the ends of aisles, or near checkouts. An ocean of prime supermarket real estate awaited anyone who could make a doughnut that avoided certain thresholds for fat, sugar, and salt. With a stroke of a legislator’s pen, the stage for the new doughnut wars was set.

The Space Race

Placement means everything in supermarkets, and the most coveted spots are at the ends of each aisle. “Those ends of aisles are instrumental for signposting people to where they need to go,” says Will Morgan, associate director at the consumer research agency Spark Emotions. As shoppers mosey down the power aisle—Morgan’s term for the central aisle connecting all others—they are bombarded by brands that have paid to have their products in prime position. According to Morgan’s data, 40 percent of shoppers who pause at a promotional aisle-end go on to explore the whole aisle beyond. Those few meters of end-of-aisle shelf space aren’t just about selling people discounted potato chips; they’re reminding shoppers that a whole world of potato chips exists just a short stroll away.

The new rules are an attempt to wrest control of the aisle-ends away from typically unhealthy foods. “The first thing we see when we walk into supermarkets often aren’t the foods we should be eating,” says Lauren Bandy, a food policy researcher at the University of Oxford. But the rules have another objective: They’re trying to nudge food companies to reformulate their snacks into slightly more healthy versions that can be sold everywhere. In 2018, the UK government launched a tax on soft drinks that contained more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters. Drinks companies scrambled to swap sugar for artificial sweeteners, and a year later the average household was buying just as many soft drinks, but with 10 percent less sugar than before.

This basically makes the policy a win, says Bandy. While there are still questions over how good for us sweeteners are, the sugar tax allowed food companies to keep profiting and shoppers to keep glugging soda while reducing sugar levels in soft drinks. For a government like the UK’s—which wants to tackle the obesity crisis without telling people what to do or upsetting big food corporations—it was a pretty good result.

But reformulating soft drinks is relatively easy: It’s just a matter of replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners. To avoid the British government’s new snack regulations, Fletcher would have a much bigger challenge. He needed to remove 70 percent of the fat and 30 to 40 percent of the sugar from supermarket doughnuts. “What I discovered is that as soon as you do, all hell breaks loose and it tastes dreadful,” he says. Fat and sugar play a dizzying number of roles in doughnuts. They feed yeast, extend shelf life, improve mouthfeel, and give glaze its crackly surface. Alter the ratios and very quickly you end up with a crappy doughnut.

The complex interaction of fats, proteins, and sugars really comes into its own when you dunk that dough in the deep fat fryer, which is how most doughnuts are cooked.

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