When it comes to global nutrition, things have gotten dangerously lopsided. While obesity rates in the developing world continue to skyrocket, many people around the world are still undernourished. But should we be looking to our biggest multinational food companies to fix the problem? The creators of a new index released last week, and funded in large part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says yes.
The Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI) uses a complex algorithm to rank the world’s 25 largest processed-food makers according to the approach each takes towards global nutrition. This first-of-its-kind ranking takes on “policies, practices, and performance related to obesity and undernutrition.” According to the stakeholders behind the index, “the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers must do more to increase access to nutritious products and positively exercise their influence on consumer choice and behavior.”
The rankings are based on categories, like how transparently the companies labeled their products, whether they were investing time and money in developing foods they believed to be healthier, and how they market to children. The rankings are not based on the foods the companies actually produce, because the ATNI website explains, “There is currently no universally accepted system for determining the nutritional quality of products relative to one another.”
In other words, simply because a company defines a product as healthy, doesn’t mean it is objectively so. Take PepsiCo’s Baked Lays, a reconstitution of dehydrated potatoes, modified food starch, sugar, corn oil, salt, soy lecithin, leavening, monocalcium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, and dextrose. While they may have fewer calories and less fat that original Lays potato chips, it would be hard for most nutritionists to argue that Baked Lays should be the foundation of a healthy diet.
Irrespective of their actual products, the companies that scored highest barely received passing grades. At the top of the list was Danone (the maker of Dannon yogurt and other dairy products, as well as Evian and Volvic bottled water), which earned a 6.3 on a 10-point scale. Unilever (maker of Best Foods, Ben & Jerry's, Slim Fast, as well as many cleaning and personal care products) and Nestlé (maker of brands like Carnation, Dryers, Stoufer’s, Jenny Craig). The next highest score went to PepsiCo (maker of the iconic soda brand, as well as Frito-Lay chips and Captain Crunch cereal), which earned a 4.4.
"It's a challenge to come up with a score when a company could have many thousands of products. I give [the ATNI team] high marks for courage for undertaking a difficult but very important task,” Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and one of the experts who provided guidance on the development of the index, told USA Today. “With time the index will get refined and you'll have a better sense of what might be happening overall.”
Inge Kauer, Executive Director of ATNI, calls the index “an urgent call to action” in the face of “a global health catastrophe.” But the larger question is whether or not processed food makers, whose main drive is to sell products, can really be expected to play a serious role in improving nutrition.
Nutritionist and blogger Andy Bellatti doesn’t think that’s a realistic ask, even if it sounds promising.
“It gives these companies an out,” he says, in reference to ATNI’s research and development category, which rewards companies for planning "healthier" choices like baked chips, instead of fried ones. “They make products that contain a lot of sugar, say, or other questionable ingredients, but as long as they add some vitamin C to this cookie or some vitamin D to that milkshake, they’re seen as doing the right thing.” Bellatti adds, most of what companies like Mars, Nestlé, and Pepsi produce is made up of empty calories, or “ingredients that have been processed to such an extent that most of the nutrition is gone.”
Looking to processed food companies to solve the hunger and obesity problems also detracts from other larger conversations about the role of regulation and agricultural policy in making cheap industrial ingredients—like high-fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin—readily available. It’s this latter point that prompted Bellatti to frame the question another way entirely. “There’s a huge gap in nutrition,” he says. “How can we begin to find remedies without depending on multinationals? Because that’s not what they’re in business for.”