HFSS explained: what the regulations mean and when they come into effect

06 September 2023, 12:01 PM
  • Find out what legislation on foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) mean for your business
HFSS explained: what the regulations mean and when they come into effect

Since new regulations on HFSS foods were first announced, questions have abounded about what the rules mean for retailers and brands, who is affected and when the different bans will come into effect. 

“It’s been a particularly complex set of rules to navigate, and there have been changes to the guidelines and timeline along the way,” says Liam Keogh, co-founder of food, drink and hospitality PR and influencer marketing agency Palm PR

Before diving into the details of the regulations, it’s important to understand what HFSS means. As an agency that looks after numerous food and drink businesses, from traditional names like Grey Poupon to trendy upstarts like non-alcoholic drink maker L.A. Brewery, Liam explains that a significant part of his job has been ensuring brands understand the rules. 

“We’ve had an important role to play in keeping our clients up to date and making sure they have a total grasp of all the rules’ implications. We had to do exactly the same when the Sugar Tax was introduced,” he says.

HFSS meaning

The HFSS rules aim to restrict the promotion of less healthy food and drink products as part of the government’s pledge to reduce obesity and improve health.

“As a result, there are many products that fall into this, like sugary drinks, salty snacks and processed foods. However, there are carve outs (for example, honey covered nuts),” Liam explains. 

It’s important for retailers and brands to understand the legislation and exemptions before considering marketing products, choosing new stock or making new product development decisions.

What does HFSS stand for?

HFSS stands for food and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar.

HFSS examples

Examples of HFSS food and drink covered by the regulations include:
• Soft drinks with added sugar
• Crisps
• Granola
• Sweet popcorn
• Chocolate-coated nuts
• Chocolate bars
• All sponge cakes
• Cereal bars

Examples of food and drink which are not covered by the regulations include:
• Nuts and seeds
• Fruit-based snacks
• Meat jerky
• Drinks without added sugar
• Sugar-free sweets
• Non-prepackaged foods (eg loose bakery items)

View a full list in the Department of Health & Social Care’s guidance here.

What is the HFSS regulation in the UK?

In England, the regulations cover the placement of promotions in store, multibuy promotional offers such as BOGOF (buy one get one free), and advertising online and on TV before 9pm.

The regulations apply to retailers with 50 employees or more. Shops with a square footage of less than 2,000 are exempt from the location restrictions. Chocolatiers, confectioners or cake stores are also exempt from location restrictions, but they must comply with price promotion rules.

Wholesalers that only sell food to other businesses are exempt, but if they sell directly to consumers they must comply with the regulations.

Wales has also announced legislation to restrict the placement and price promotion of HFSS products, which will be introduced in 2024 and rolled out across the country by 2025. The Welsh government said it aimed to align its rules with the same products included within England’s legislation, however the types and sizes of businesses impacted was not stated.

Scotland last year held a consultation on restricting promotions on HFSS food and drink.

When did HFSS restrictions come into effect?

The regulations on HFSS foods date back to 2018 when then-prime minister Theresa May launched a consultation on restricting the promotion of less healthy food and drink.

The restrictions were originally due to come into force in April 2022, but the timeline has been pushed back several times as retailers and food producers said details remained unclear, and due to the cost-of-living crisis.

In October 2022, the ban on HFSS products in prominent store locations began. These regulations were aimed at retailers, and ruled that they couldn’t put HFSS products within two metres of a checkout area, within two metres of a designated queuing area, in the end of aisle display or at the entrance of the store.

The ban on HFSS promotions, which was due to come into effect in October 2023 has been pushed back to October 2025, and a ban on advertising HFSS foods online and on TV before 9pm is set to come into force in January 2025, having been delayed from a January 2023 deadline.

Who is and isn’t affected in the fine food world?

While the smallest independent retailers will not have to delve into the fine print of these regulations, larger SMEs should look into what the rules mean for them.

“The HFSS legislation…applies to the products sold in retail outlets with more than 50 employees, which obviously covers a large part of the market and will have an impact on the fine food world,” Liam says.

He adds that for smaller and independent brands, the legislation is a “double-edged sword”. 

“On one hand, their size makes them more agile and quicker to adapt and they don’t have to worry about the ingrained identity or legacy that the products of larger brands might have. They also benefit from the fact that the rules only apply to brands with less than 250 employees and retailers with less than 50 employees.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “making changes to packaging and the formulation of products is an expensive and resource-intensive business, which smaller businesses can obviously be short on.”

For businesses that are nimble, however, he says the rules present an opportunity to gain traction with retailers over non-compliant brands or big brands that are slower to adapt. “Publicising brands to get them on retail buyers’ radars is something we’ve been tasked to do even more over the last couple of years to help make an impact in this area,” he says.

For example, Hannah McCollum, founder of ChicP, says her brand’s snack packs are making the most of the HFSS rules. “ChicP can emphasise its healthier product range in its marketing and brand positioning, potentially attracting consumers who are looking to reduce their HFSS intake.” She believes ChicP will continue to innovate and develop new products that comply with HSFF regulations to expand its range of healthier options available to consumers. “For me, it’s all about health and helping to reduce obesity in this country with more healthy snacks available.”

Liam adds that new entrants in the market have an advantage, too: “Very new brands are also making hay by making sure that the new products that they launch are within the HFSS rules from day one, which can give them a leg up with retailers at that crucial first stage.”

As well as affecting retailers stocking decisions, a big part of the upcoming regulations will impact brands’ advertising strategies. “A big part of the policy affects how products can be promoted, particularly through advertising and special offers,” Liam says. “This includes social media advertising, which we do a lot of, so we’ve had to provide a lot of advice on guidance on how to run successful marketing campaigns in this new landscape.”

Has your shop been impacted by HFSS regulations? Do you foresee any challenges or opportunities in the upcoming regulations? Get in touch to let us know your view courtney.goldsmith@artichokehq.com.

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