These days many food and beverage companies are saying that they want to provide healthier products. That they want to help address the global obesity epidemic and the continuing rise of diet-related chronic diseases. That they want to make healthier products more accessible and affordable. But borrowing the words of the Spice Girls, “so tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” How can you tell whether increasing access to healthy products is really a priority for each of the 10 leading U.S. food and beverage companies?
Enter the first edition of the U.S. Access to Nutrition Index. In November 2018, the Access to Nutrition Foundation (ATNF) released this first-of-its-kind evaluation and ranking of the 10 leading U.S. food and beverage companies. Consider it a combined report card and class ranking on what these companies are doing to address nutrition challenges.
As Inge Kauer, ATNF’s Executive Director, explained, “the U.S. Index expands on our Global Index efforts. Compared to our existing Global Index, the U.S. Index specifically focused on the companies in the U.S. and what they were doing in the U.S.” The Index included two separately scored elements for each company: the company’s Corporate Profile score, which assessed what the company says it will do, what the company actually does, and how it shares such information publicly, and the company’s Product Profile score, which assessed the nutritional quality of the company’s products.
Before any companies get salty about the Index, the ATNF did offer them opportunities to participate and contribute information to the process. Back in May 2017, the ATNF informed the companies of their plans to develop the U.S. Index and invited the companies to provide input on the methodology. In August 2017 after the methodology was established, the ATNF formally invited the companies to “engage in the research process on a voluntary and cost-free basis to ensure the independence of the Index.” Then between June and November 2017, ATNF research analysts assembled publicly available information on each of the companies and any information that the companies provided on an online data-gathering platform. ATNF gave the companies access to this platform, as well as the opportunity to comment on the initial assessment made by ATNF, and provide additional relevant information, which 7 companies did.
As described in a Methodology document, the Corporate Profile consisted of the following scores:
- Corporate strategy, management and governance (constituting 12.5% of the Corporate Profile): the company’s corporate nutrition strategy, nutrition governance and management systems, and quality of reporting
- Formulating appropriate products (27.5%): the company’s product formulation and nutrient profiling systems
- Delivering affordable, accessible products (22.5%): the company’s product pricing and product distribution practices
- Responsible marketing policies, compliance and spending (22.5%): the company’s marketing policies, auditing and compliance with these policies, and spending and advertising focus towards all consumers and specifically towards children.
- Supporting healthy diets and active lifestyles (5%): how the company supports employee health and wellness, mothers breastfeeding at work, and supports consumer-oriented healthy eating and active lifestyle programs
- Product labeling and use of health and nutrition claims (5%)
- Influencing governments and policymakers, and stakeholder engagement (5%): including lobbying practices and stakeholder engagement
Here are how each of the companies scored on their Corporate Profiles:
As you can see, Nestlé finished first with the widest band on the graph and a score of 5.3. Unilever finished second at 4.7 with Pepsico third at 4.4.
Then, this chart shows how the companies did on their product profiles:
ConAgra and Kraft-Heinz finished one-two, even though they did not provide information to the ATNF. These two finished number 7 and 9 in the Corporate Profiles scores.
Keep in mind that none of the companies were really pushing 9.8’s and 9.9’s. If this had been a gymnastics competition, there would have been a lot of falling off the equipment and face plants. As Kauer related, “the conclusion is that the U.S. food and nutrition beverage companies really need to step up their efforts to address the double-burden of under-nutrition (i.e., not getting enough nutrients) and obesity. This then is a call to action.”
Comparing U.S. Index findings to the Global Index findings showed that, “the 9 food and beverage companies are less transparent in the U.S. than they are in other parts of the world,” according to Kauer. She added that, “companies in the U.S. are not doing enough to make their products affordable and accessible in the U.S. as they are globally.” Kauer offered labeling as an example: “companies have not adapted as easy-to-read labels in the front of the packages in the U.S. compared with other parts of the world.”
So far, the Index has gotten the attention of at least some of the companies, Kauer said that “Nestlé is the only company in the Index that has a U.S. specific report on how it will proceed towards its nutrition targets. Both Nestlé and Conagra have responded to Index, expressing concerns that the scores are relatively low and recognizing the need for increasing change.”
Wendy Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, RD, Vice President , Nutrition, Health and Wellness at Nestlé reacted to the rankings by saying that “we are very pleased to rank number one on the Index, but we do realize that there is more to get done. We are committed to further changes and the leadership of Nestle is very much aligned with such commitments.” Johnson added that “In the U.S., Nestle does not market to children under the age of 12 and has steadily ratcheted down added sodium and added sugar.”
How then does the ATNF plan to get the attention of the other companies? Well, besides wearing a phosphorescent yellow suit, another way to get attention is dough. No, not cookie dough (which can be very yummy but shouldn’t be eaten raw as I wrote previously), but money or funding. Thus, as part of the launch, the ATNF organized an investor meeting in New York City hosted by Bernstein. The thought is that investors may want to use commitments to nutrition to guide their investing and use the Index as a resource. Kauer related that so far, at least 50 to 60 major investors have expressed support for the Index.
If you go with the belief that more information and greater transparency are better, this new U.S. Index could be an important resource for consumers, researchers, public health officials, policy makers, and investors. If, on the other hand, you want less information and more opaqueness, then no comment. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have become the world’s leading killers, and poor diet is a substantial risk factor for many NCDs. Bruce Willis as John McClane in the movie Die Hard once said, “Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.” This new U.S. Index can help determine which food and beverage companies are parts of the solution.