Twinings’ Earl Grey brew-haha is just the start


First Twinings changed its much-loved Earl Grey recipe – now, thanks to a health drive, Heinz is changing its HP Sauce formula.

I knew something was up when my wife started stockpiling tea. You only had to open a cupboard in our kitchen and a box of tea bags or loose-leaf would tumble out. Whenever we went shopping, even to the smallest grocery store in the remotest village, she would scour the shelves, eyes desperately hunting down her prize. What she was looking for was the Holy Grail of the tea drinker – a box of original Earl Grey. Twinings, inexplicably, decided a few months back to change the recipe to produce a taste that connoisseurs of the traditional blend found revolting.

Twinings called it The Earl Grey, with the definite article acting like a sheepish acknowledgement that it had done something it shouldn’t. It most certainly was not the Earl Grey; indeed, some questioned whether it was even tea at all. My in-house taster likened it to dishwater mixed with perfume. After being inundated with complaints, Twinings has restored the original blend, though not to the shops. Customers can order it online for roughly the same price as the old tea – but you have to spend £35 to avoid the £3.95 delivery charge. I suspect its devotees will not be happy until it is back on the supermarket shelves.

Doubtless, the executives of the American food giant Heinz will have been watching the Earl Grey brew-haha with mounting alarm, because a similar campaign is growing against the changes it has made to another much-loved product: HP Sauce. For more than 100 years, bottles of the brown stuff have been a staple of kitchen tables across the land. No roadside caff worthy of the name would be without its HP alongside the tomato ketchup. Made from a recipe that includes tomatoes, malt vinegar, molasses, dates, tamarind and a secret concoction of spices, it is defined by its familiar tangy taste. Like Marmite, people loathe it or love it – and those that love it certainly don’t want it changed.

But Heinz has done just that in order to conform to the demand by government health chiefs that food should have less salt. The company has signed up to the Health Department’s so-called Responsibility Deal, a programme of targets for reducing the level of fats and salts used by food manufacturers. So, whereas the previous HP recipe contained 2.1g of salt per 100g, it now has 1.3g – a 38 per cent cut that for aficionados is enough to make all the difference to the taste. They say it is now too sour. Marco Pierre White, the Michelin-starred chef, who was eating sausage and mash in a pub recently, sent the meal back because he thought it was off. “It was the HP,” he said. “It was definitely dodgy. I had no idea they had changed the recipe.”

The HP case is different from the Twinings one in that the latter’s wounds were self-inflicted, whereas Heinz feels itself under pressure from the Government to make its foods healthier. This Responsibility Deal began in the spring and its impact is about to be felt. Indeed, all of us who have a favourite food or drink might find our taste buds sorely tested over the next few years as manufacturers change products to meet their pledges under the initiative.

Many of our best-known companies and supermarkets have signed up, promising to reduce calorie and salt content. While they include producers of such obvious calorie-busting fare as burgers and pizzas, who eats so much brown sauce that its salt content is going to make any difference? Given that it is usually being splattered onto a full English breakfast or squeezed onto a bacon sandwich, the sauce is probably the healthiest part of the meal. What are we going to have next – Mars Bars without sugar? Scotch without alcohol? The most famous advocate of HP sauce was said to be Harold Wilson, the Labour prime minister, though in fact he always professed a preference for Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. I have no idea what its salt levels are, but will it now have to change at the behest of the health police?

The argument comes down to honesty and transparency. Heinz had already launched a reduced salt and sugar version of HP Sauce, yet it went ahead and changed the recipe of the classic version too, without making clear to customers that it had done so. Why not preserve the original and allow people to make the choice for themselves? And if you do change the recipe, should you really market the product as “original and genuine”?

If Heinz thought it could get away with changing an old stalwart such as HP Sauce without anyone noticing, then it was mistaken. It reckoned without the highly developed palates of people who were virtually weaned on the original and whose ability to spot an imposter is as finely tuned as the most accomplished wine taster — or Earl Grey tea drinker.

As for me, I am going to stockpile jars of Colman’s English Mustard — just in case.


I recently opened a new bottle of HP Sauce and can agree with this article, its new recipe is nasty! – ED

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