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

Action on Salt and Share Action call for world’s largest food companies to prioritise health after finding over half of UK ‘flagship’ products surveyed are ‘unhealthy’.

Junk food. Credit: Shutterstock

Junk food. Credit: Shutterstock

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 expert 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’. In most cases this is in stark contrast to the image they try and create as global leaders in improving the healthfulness of their food and drinks.

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 fativ. 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. That’s despite the Government issuing salt reduction targets in 2020. Furthermore, many still contain excessive levels of sugar – clearly ignoring the Government’s sugar reduction targets set in 2016.

Worryingly, 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.

These results also suggest that certain manufacturers are likely to be more greatly impacted by forthcoming promotions and advertising restrictions on unhealthy products. The first strand of restrictions, to limit unhealthy products being promoted in prominent places such as checkouts, will come into force this October. Rather than fight the restrictions, these companies should step up their efforts to reformulate their products responsibly so that the restrictions would no longer apply. Companies are also able to mitigate profit losses while supporting public health by shifting their marketing and advertising towards healthier options. Indeed, by their own estimates, Kellogg’s could suffer revenue losses in the region of £100m if they do not adapt.

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary
University of London and Chair of Action on Salt, says:

“It’s a national scandal that most of these big food companies are blatantly contributing to the number of people dying and suffering unnecessarily from strokes and heart disease, which remains the biggest 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 to prevent obesity and heart disease. 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 adds:

“These foods can and should be improved to contain less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and more fibre, protein, fruit and vegetables. If retailers and smaller food manufacturers can achieve it, so can these big multinational organisations. Unfortunately, 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, says:

“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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Published 28 Jul 2022

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