Call for world’s largest food companies to prioritise health after survey claims bad practice

Two UK health charities are calling on some of the world’s largest multinational companies to urgently improve the healthiness of the products that they sell, including stepping up their efforts to reformulate their popular brands.

This comes after a new snapshot survey suggests many of their products are classified as ‘unhealthy’ due to their high levels of salt, sugar and/or saturated fat, and low levels of fibre, protein, fruit and/or vegetables.

Research by Action on Salt, the group based at Queen Mary University of London, supported by charity ShareAction, identified 100 key flagship products produced by Danone, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, and Unilever and found over half of all the flagship products surveyed would be considered ‘unhealthy’.

According to the charities, nearly half of all products surveyed would receive a red colour-coded warning label on front of pack for being high in either salt, sugar or saturated fat. What’s more, of those products featured in the Department of Health’s salt reduction programme, over a third of the items surveyed, and two in three of Unilever products, each failed to meet their respective salt targets.

Nearly two-thirds of Kellogg’s and Unilever’s flagship products surveyed are deemed less healthy. Danone has the lowest proportion of flagship products which score as less healthy (just 2 in 20), showing companies can still be profitable even if they increase the proportion of healthy vs less healthy products they sell, the charities said.

Almost two-thirds of products included in this survey display nutrition, health and sustainability-based claims as part of their product description. With the exception of Danone, the findings from this survey suggest this practice is widespread with over a third of all companies’ unhealthy flagship products surveyed using a nutrition or health-based claim. Although legal, evidence suggests this ‘health halos’ effect can mislead consumers by discouraging shoppers from scrutinising the ingredients more thoroughly.

Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chair of Action on Salt, called the findings “a national scandal”. Most of the big food companies are “blatantly contributing to the number of people dying and suffering unnecessarily from strokes and heart disease”, he said.

“Improving the nutritional content of foods by reformulating recipes with less salt, sugar and saturated fat is by far the most important strategy to prevent obesity and heart disease,” MacGregor said. “Fundamentally, we need these companies to be more responsible and for the Government to take full control with strict measures to include mandatory targets for reformulation, well enforced marketing and promotions restrictions (including shortening the delay to ban multi-buys and advertising) and better food-labelling requirements.”

Hattie Burt, policy & communications officer at Action on Salt added: “It seems that with the Government failing to properly enforce salt and sugar targets, or to implement much-needed public health legislation – producing healthy, nutritious food is just not a priority for all of these big food companies.”

Ignacio Vazquez, head of health at ShareAction, said: “While some manufacturers are taking steps to increase their sales of healthy foods, the overall picture is of an industry lagging behind. The impact of obesity on a healthier society is clear and investments in companies over-reliant on the sales of unhealthy foods are fast becoming stranded assets. We have seen the UK retail market respond to these issues by setting clear targets to increase their sales of healthy foods over time. Shareholders of food manufacturers need to call on them to do the same.”

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