Food businesses have raised their game on nutrition this year. However, fewer than a third of products can be classified as ‘healthy’. Inge Kauer reports.
What we eat and drink affects our health and wellbeing in the short- and long-term. Poor nutrition causes obesity and heart disease at one end of the spectrum, and stunting, wasting and vulnerability to infection at the other. Right now, one in three people globally is either under- or overweight, and this nutrition crisis is placing a huge burden on health services and threatening the achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Many of us have a lot of choice about what we eat, and of course we have to take responsibility for this. In some cases – particularly but not exclusively in the developing world – choice may be constrained by scarcity or limited purchasing power. But there is another strong determinant of global nutrition outcomes, and that’s the growing impact of big food and drink companies.
With operations in over 200 countries and approximately $500 billion (£373 billion) in sales each year, the world’s 22 biggest food and beverage manufacturers have an enormous influence over consumer choice and behaviour. And with this influence comes huge responsibility. Since 2013, the Access to Nutrition Foundation has produced a ranking of these manufacturers, based on the premise that companies can and should increase consumer access to nutritious and affordable foods and drink, and responsibly exercise their power.
The results of the 2018 Index are both heartening and illustrate that progress still needs to be made.
On the one hand, we can see evidence of impact: since the assessment two years ago, many companies have stepped up efforts to encourage better diets, largely through better policies and disclosure of information. As a result, the average score on the ranking has gone up by nearly one point. Nestlé tops the ranking this year with a score of 6.8, with Unilever in second place on 6.7, and Danone in third on 6.3. Each one of these companies has put policies on nutrition and undernutrition at the heart of their business strategy, and required boards and CEOs to feed in to and sign off on them.
However, the 2018 Index shows there is still considerable room for improvement. The new “product profile”, which assesses the healthiness of each company’s ranges in nine countries, show that fewer than a third of the 23,013 products surveyed can be classified as “healthy”. This contrasts with companies’ own assessments of how healthy their products are, suggesting that they are using different criteria and could be more rigorous in holding themselves to account.
So, overall in 2018 there is some cause for optimism, but more to do if companies are to fulfill the potential they have to be a real force for good on global nutrition. The first thing they should do is improve the nutritional composition of their existing products, particularly those they sell a lot of, and publish clear targets so that others can track improvements. Concerted and consistent efforts should be made to increase the affordability and accessibility of healthy products in all markets. And boards must get more involved, taking responsibility for spearheading a strategic response to nutrition and undernutrition in their core business.
If companies take these and the other actions recommended in the report, they will be able to move fast towards being part of the solution – rather than part of the problem – to the urgent global nutrition crisis.
Inge Kauer is executive director of the Access to Nutrition Foundation