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Leon Kaye headshot

Big Food and Nutrition: It’s Branding, Not Reality

By Leon Kaye

At a time when inflation is pushing more people toward food insecurity, America’s largest food companies are in a position to assist when it comes to improving nutrition nationwide. To start, they are primed to expand access to healthy food through their abilities to scale up food production. But that isn’t the reality, at least when it comes to producing, distributing and selling nutritious food products.

At least, that’s according to the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI), which rolled out a report this week ranking the “nutrition” claims of the largest food companies doing business in the U.S.

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Among the ongoing public health problems: At least one in six young Americans are obese, and about 10 percent of the population experienced food insecurity during 2020. How can companies help? Obviously, improving the nutritional profiles of their food products is one tactic. But engaged company leadership committed to making nutritious foods, i.e., governance, is also important, ATNI advises. So is ensuring that access to healthy foods is possible for low-income families, and the promotion and marketing of such foods was also on ATNI’s radar.

But based on how these 11 companies scored, that isn’t happening.

Unilever: governance and leadership counts when it comes to nutrition

The winner in these rankings is Unilever. The big reason? The company has a relatively bold commitment to boost its share of highly nutritious foods this year, and based on the sheer tonnage of such products sold, it’s delivering on that pledge. Unilever has also continued to report on its sugar and sodium reduction targets. Strong governance, as in leadership coming from the C-suite, is also why Unilever outranked 10 other large food companies doing business in the U.S. 

“Accountability of Unilever’s nutrition strategy lies with senior leadership, and it is one of three companies that link remuneration of senior leadership to nutrition objectives,” the ATNI report found.

Conagra: How about those plant-based meals?

Somewhere in the middle is Conagra. Overall, the company that’s the force behind brands such as Birds Eye, Chef Boyardee and Vlasic only ranked ninth out of the 11 ranked companies. But in terms of the percentage of sales from “healthier” products, Conagra ranked first after ATNI crunched the numbers, with that ratio a smidge under 50 percent. ATNI didn’t outright mention the company’s plant-based brands such as Gardein, but credited Conagra’s ability to have more than 80 percent of its vegan and vegetarian meal products meet its internal nutrition score.

One area where ATNI dinged Conagra was in its marketing efforts: “Conagra is encouraged to commit to increasing the proportion of marketing spending on healthy products relative to overall marketing spending and publish a commentary outlining the changes to the company’s marketing spending in support of healthier eating.” Ouch: Perhaps a little more promo of Boom Chicka Pop is needed, rather than that laser focus on ensuring Slim Jims are strategically placed next to all those convenience store cash registers.

The sugary drink giant ranks at the bottom

Coca-Cola ranked dead last. ATNI called out the beverage giant for being the only company in its index that hasn't adopted any sort of nutrient profiling system. The report also notes that the company lacks a plan for reaching any sugar or calorie reduction targets. And while the company is burnishing its dairy and juice product portfolio, not much is going on with other foods based on ingredients such as fruits, nuts, legumes or vegetables.

As for Coke's philanthropic efforts, ATNI responds: “Coca-Cola makes in-kind donations of its products in the U.S., primarily for disaster relief efforts. However, the company does not have a policy in place to limit the donation of unhealthy products and prioritize donations of healthy products, nor does it track its product donations.”

What's next?

What’s notable about these rankings is that none of these companies had particularly stellar scores from ATNI’s point of view. When it comes to nutrition, these 11 companies are more in the midst of a race to the bottom rather than doing their part to bolster public health here in the U.S. That’s not a surprise considering many of these companies’ lobbying and public relations campaigns aiming to stifle just about any legislation designed to tackle America’s obesity problem.

Bottom line: When it comes to integrating nutrition into their core business models, mapping out affordability and accessibility of healthier food options, and marketing the “good stuff” as opposed to promoting sugary drinks and snacks, Big Food has been a big fail on meeting these challenges. 

Finally, ATNI’s assessment of the food and beverage sector’s efforts is summed up in how it feels about these companies’ lobbying efforts. “Companies are encouraged to actively support (and commit to not lobby against) public policy measures in the U.S. to benefit public health and address obesity as enshrined in the National Strategy on food, hunger, nutrition, and health,” the group concludes.

Image credit: Calle Macarone via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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