A new report looks at the commitments large food and drink manufacturers like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Danone have made to create healthier food environments in Canada, and whether they have improved since 2018. (Shutterstock)

Healthy eating is challenging in our current food environment in Canada. When delicious, attractive, unhealthy foods are promoted, priced, and placed for easy access and consumption, it contributes to the suboptimal eating patterns among most Canadian adults and children.

The food industry has a role in the World Health Organization’s global action plan for addressing chronic diseases by creating healthier food environments, by taking actions like reducing the amount of salt, saturated fats and sugars in foods. After all, food companies are the ones who create, distribute and market the majority of foods we consume.

It is no secret that companies and their shareholders have legally mandated profit-driven interests — interests that may not align with a desire to support public health and healthy eating among Canadians.

To understand more about food industry commitments, we studied the nutrition-related policies and pledges of the largest food and drink manufacturers in Canada, including companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Danone. We wanted to understand the commitments companies have made to create healthier food environments in Canada and to see if things had improved since 2018, when our team of nutrition and public health researchers first conducted this exercise.

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We used standardized methods that have been used in other countries to evaluate the top 22 food and drink manufacturers in Canada and their company policies and commitments related to nutrition in six key areas:

  • corporate strategy,
  • food (re)formulation,
  • nutrition information and labelling,
  • marketing and promotion,
  • accessibility and availability, and
  • transparency in relationships.

Scores for each of these six areas were added up to generate overall scores out of 100 for each company. To make sure the evaluation was relevant, we adapted the methods so they considered current policies in Canada. Our newly released report, which follows a similar report our team published in 2019, revealed some surprising findings.

Surprising findings

Our work showed that some companies are doing more than others. We found a range of overall company scores, with the highest score totalling 75 points out of 100, while the lowest score was 18 points.

The top performing company, Unilever, had a defined strategy to support healthier diets, public targets for the proportion of sales from healthier products and a commitment to report on these targets, and a policy that restricts marketing to children up to the age of 16. These positive examples demonstrate that it is reasonable to ask companies to make public health commitments, and to expect them to report on their achievement of these goals.

The results showed that many food and beverage companies are not doing enough to positively shape diets in Canada. The median score received was 49/100, a small improvement since our last report.

When we looked at each of the six key areas, we found very few commitments to make healthier foods more available and accessible. Most commitments centred on what companies said they were doing to improve the nutritional quality of their food products. We also found some important areas where none of the 22 companies had made any commitments. For instance, none had committed to decrease their spending on marketing unhealthy foods.

Company commitments related to nutrition matter. They guide companies’ current and future actions, they inform shareholders and governments of corporate intentions and perhaps most importantly, they can be used to hold companies to account for actually meeting their stated commitments.

Recommendations for healthier food environments

If food manufacturers are to play a meaningful role in improving food environments, commitments and targets need to be specific, comprehensive, and clearly and transparently shared with Canadians. Companies also need to track and report on their progress in achieving their targets. We see some promising practices emerging internationally. For example, Mexico-based international food manufacturer Grupo Bimbo publicly reports the healthfulness of the products it sells and what proportion of its sales come from healthier foods.

Based on our analysis, we have created a set of recommendations for food manufacturers. For example, we recommend that:

  • Food manufacturers should set and publicly report on targets for the proportion of their sales that come from healthier foods.

  • All food manufacturers should commit to specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) targets for the amount of sodium, sugars and saturated fats in their products and report on their progress.

  • Companies should commit to pricing healthier foods the same or lower than less healthy foods.

We also suggest that companies pledge not to advertise unhealthy products and brands on product packaging or in settings or media where children less than 18 years old may be exposed, in line with recent World Health Organization recommendations.

Companies can do more if they truly want to support healthier dietary patterns among adults and children in Canada. Some companies may be taking steps in the right direction, but others seem to need more incentive to act and overall progress remains slow.

This work highlights the importance of introducing government policies that would require companies to make positive changes and create healthier food environments in Canada. Given the billions of dollars in health-care costs each year in Canada caused by diet-related diseases, it is likely worth the investment.The Conversation

Lana Vanderlee, Canada Research Chair in Healthy Food Policy, Assistant Professor in Nutrition, Université Laval; Alexa Gaucher-Holm, Master of Science student, School of Nutrition, Université Laval; Dana Olstad, Associate Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, and Monique Potvin Kent, Professor, School of Epidemiology and Public Health, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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