More than half of the ‘flagship’ products produced for the UK market by five of the world’s largest food companies are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), new research suggests.
Researchers from Action on Salt, the Queen Mary University of London-based think tank backed by ShareAction, have identified what they describe as ‘100 key flagship products’ made by Danone, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Nestle and Unilever. More than half of these products would be considered unhealthy and given a red color coded warning label according to the UK Nutrient Scoring System.
Additionally, of the products surveyed that were included in the Department of Health’s 2020 salt reduction program, more than a third did not meet their respective health goals.
“It is a national scandal that most of these big food companies are brazenly contributing to the number of people needlessly dying and suffering from stroke and heart disease, which remains the leading cause of death in the UK. Improving the nutritional content of foods by reformulating recipes with less salt, sugar, and saturated fat is by far the most important strategy for preventing obesity and heart disease.”said Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and president of Action on Salt.
“Fundamentally, we need these companies to be more accountable and the Government to take full control with strong measures to include mandatory targets for reformulation, well-enforced marketing restrictions and promotions (including reducing the delay to ban multiple purchases and advertising) and better food labeling requirements.
Best and worst performers
Danone was found to have the ‘lowest proportion’ of flagship products qualifying as less healthy, with only two of the 20 products examined falling into the red category. This, campaigners said, shows that “companies can still be profitable even if they increase the ratio of healthy versus less healthy products they sell.”
The researchers singled out Kellogg’s and Unilever in particular, noting that almost two-thirds of their products were considered “less healthy.” Of Unilever’s products in the DoH salt reduction program, two out of three failed to meet reformulation targets.
Action on Salt noted that underperforming companies are likely to be hit hardest by upcoming changes to the promotion and marketing rules on unhealthy products when the country’s HFSS restrictions take effect.
The first phase of restrictions limiting the promotion of unhealthy products in prominent places in the store, such as checkouts, will go into effect in October. However, campaigners criticized what they characterized as the government’s inaction on HFSS following implementation delays.
“Unfortunately, it appears that the government is not adequately meeting salt and sugar targets, or implementing much-needed public health legislation, producing healthy and nutritious food is simply not a priority for all these big food companies.”Hattie Burt, policy and communications officer for Action on Salt, was suggested. “These foods can and should be improved to contain less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and more fiber, protein, fruits and vegetables. If retailers and small food manufacturers can do it, so can these large multinational organizations.”
Harnessing ‘health halos’ for unhealthy foods
The authors of the study insisted that the lack of reformulation of the products of the multinationals contrasts with the image they cultivate.
In fact, almost two-thirds of the products included in the survey show claims based on nutrition, health and sustainability as part of the product description. “With the exception of Danone, the findings of this survey suggest that this practice is widespread, with more than a third of unhealthy flagship products from all companies surveyed using a nutrition or health-based claim.”the authors noted.
Although this practice is legal, Action on Salt highlighted that health halos can ‘mislead consumers’.
Kellogg’s was found to be ‘the worst offender’ with health or nutrition claims on nearly three quarters of its least healthy food products included in the snapshot survey.
“Making health claims about unhealthy products should raise ethical concerns about the behavior of these companies. We call on global food companies to change their marketing strategy to one that champions genuinely healthier options.”organizations insisted.
Companies can also mitigate profit losses while supporting public health by shifting their marketing and advertising toward healthier options, it was suggested. Kellogg’s could suffer revenue losses in the order of £100m if it doesn’t adapt to the new HFSS environment, they said.
“While some manufacturers are taking steps to increase their health food sales, the overall picture is one of an industry lagging behind.”warned Ignacio Vázquez, Head of Health at ShareAction. “Investments in companies that rely too heavily on unhealthy food sales are quickly becoming stranded assets. We have seen the UK retail market respond to these issues by setting clear targets to increase their healthy food sales over time. Shareholders of food manufacturers should ask them to do the same.”
“It is misleading to make these claims”
Of the manufacturers criticized in particular, Kellogg and Unilever noted that the snapshot survey did not look at their full product ranges and insisted that progress is being made against reformulation targets.
“This survey is not based on our best-selling products, nor is it representative of our full product range, so it is misleading to make these claims. Four out of five of Kellogg’s best-selling cereals are HFSS-free, and by next year, all of our children’s cereals will be HFSS-free.”a Kellogg spokesperson told FoodNavigator.
“We will continue to renew our diet and launch new cereals and snacks to meet the needs of our consumers, for example expanding our range of HFSS-free high fiber wheats in the UK.”
Kellogg also wanted to emphasize that it is transparent in its labeling, rejecting criticism that claims about unhealthy alternatives are misleading. “We’re always very open about what’s in our food by including things like traffic light labels so people can decide if they want to buy our products or not. All the claims that we use in the package follow the rules established by law.”
For its part, Unilever highlighted the progress it has made on reformulation, pointing to the fact that it has removed more than 37 million tonnes of salt from its food products since its salt reduction strategy was launched in 2009.
“We are committed to helping shoppers make healthier choices, including reducing the amount of salt they eat, while still enjoying the food and foods they love. We continue to take steps across all of our products to reduce salt, sugar and calories while maintaining great taste, as well as offering choice to our shoppers by introducing healthier variants to our ranges.”explained a company spokesman.
“We’ve already done this for several of our biggest brands, including Carte D’Or Light Vanilla, Hellmann’s Lighter Than Light, Marmite Reduced Salt, and our new Knorr Zero Salt Stock Cubes. Many of our products are available in a variety of servings and sizes, and all include recommended serving and nutritional information on the package. We know there is more to do and we have various product innovation and reformulation plans underway.”