Study: Food Companies Aren’t Doing Enough to Address Obesity or Malnutrition

Even the top-ranked corporations on the Access to Nutrition Index did not receive a passing grade.

Top-scoring Unilever owns many food brands, including Hellman's. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Thousands of miles separate a malnourished man living in sub-Saharan Africa and an obese school kid in the United States. The two people appear to have opposing relationships with food—one suffering from a profound lack, the other, in the simplest terms, from a surfeit.

But thanks to the globalized economy, there’s a good chance that some of what they eat comes from an international food corporation. As such, a company like Nestlé or General Mills is tied not only to the obesity crisis in the United States and other Western countries, but to the 800 million people around the world who are going hungry. The Access to Nutrition Index, published on Thursday, seeks to quantify how the world’s leading food companies are responding to both sides of problem—which, with one out of three people either undernourished or overweight, touch a huge swath of humanity—and to push them to do more.

“Given the global reach of their products, food and beverage companies have a critical role to play in helping to tackle the growing global health crisis caused by poor nutrition,” Inge Kauer, executive director of the ATNF, said in a press release. “While companies have a social responsibility to tackle global nutrition challenges, doing so also presents a business opportunity as consumers worldwide demand healthier foods.”

The 2016 ranking is the second iteration of the index. The first was published in 2013. The 22 leading food companies were considered, with each rated in categories such as governance, labeling, and engagement. No company scored higher than 6.4 points out of 10. Leading the index were Unilever (6.4), Nestlé (5.9), and Danone (4.9), which “have done more than the others to integrate nutrition into their business models, to produce healthier products with, for example, lower levels of sugar, salt, and fats and higher levels of healthier ingredients, and to ensure affordable pricing and wider distribution of healthier products in emerging markets,” according to a release.

(Chart: Courtesy

The lowest-ranked companies were Heinz (0.3), Kraft (0.8), and Brasil Foods (1.1), the latter of which sells processed foods, dairy, and meat mainly in Brazil, the Middle East, and Africa. Three privately held firms that did not engage in the research were awarded scores of 0 from lack of public disclosures. Heinz dropped from sixth in the 2013 rankings to 18th in 2016, but that was largely because the company opted out of working with researchers. It did cooperate for the first index.

Going forward, the Access to Nutrition Foundation is calling on companies to change their approach to developing markets in particular. “As many companies have goals to expand their businesses in emerging economies they must work with governments and civil society to find innovative ways to provide affordable and accessible nutritious foods for poorer people,” according to the index. “Only four of the companies were found to be producing specially fortified products targeting undernourished consumer groups in low-income countries such as women of childbearing age and young children.”