EU consumer group praises Unilever’s recent healthy food targets

22 Mar 2022

European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, welcomed Unilever’s recent pledge to publicly measure its product portfolio’s nutrition scores against at least six key health targets and hopes more companies will “follow suit,” said Nelleke Polderman, the group’s senior policy officer.

Not least, this should apply to EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practice signatories, she stressed.

EU consumer group praises Unilever’s recent healthy food targets

Polderman’s comments come shortly after London-headquartered food giant Unilever – currently the world’s largest ice-cream producer with brands including Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum – announced its benchmarking plans.

In October 2022, Unilever will become the first global foods company to publicly report the performance of its product portfolio annually against government-endorsed nutrient profile models (NPM), both globally and in 16 strategic markets.

Benchmarking measures will include Europe’s NutriScore, the UK’s high fat salt sugar (HFSS) measure, the Health Star Rating used in Australia and New Zealand, Chile’s front of pack warning logos and Singapore’s Healthy Choice logos.

Performance will be reported both by volume of product and by sales revenue.

BEUC: ‘We wish it could inspire more food companies to follow suit’

“Unilever’s move to report on the healthiness of their products is significant as it makes it possible to check over time how the company performs and if it manages to make their products healthier,” Polderman told THE Ingredients Network.

“We wish it could inspire more food companies to follow suit, notably the signatories of the EU Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practice, which could take it up as part of their individual pledges,” she said.

Meanwhile, BEUC hopes the decision will steer Unilever toward producing healthier products, contributing to efforts to make it easier for consumers to improve their diets.

“This is important as today one in two adults in the EU are overweight or obese,” said Polderman. “Many Europeans eat too much saturated fat, salt and sugars and too few quantities of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.”

Despite the ongoing obesity problem, it has been reported that less than a third of all packaged food and drink products can be classified as healthy, she added.

Polderman also welcomed Unilever’s use of “independent and validated” NPMs such as Nutri-Score to report on its portfolio’s healthiness, emphasising the importance of avoiding “cherry picking” results.

“It is important Unilever’s performance will be measured both by volume of products and by sales revenue, which will give complementary information,” she said.

“We are confident that Unilever will choose to report transparently on its performance against the various nutrient profiling models it selected and avoid cherry-picking the one(s) giving the most favourable results.”

Investors striving for healthier aims

Unilever said its decision to disclose its products’ healthiness measures came after “extensive, constructive engagement” with responsible investment charity, ShareAction, and its Healthy Markets Initiative, aimed at improving children’s health by increasing access to affordable healthy food.

The move also follows a shareholder resolution tabled on the issue, the Financial Times reported, led by institutional investors including the €150 billion asset manager Candriam. A requisition put forward by Share Action on behalf of a number of investors for a resolution on nutrition at Unilever’s 2022 AGM has now been withdrawn, according to the press release.

Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s president of foods and refreshment, said: “We welcome the constructive dialogue we have had with ShareAction and the Healthy Markets Initiative. We share a common belief in the importance of having an ambitious long-term strategy for nutrition and health, and that companies should publish ambitious targets to deliver against.

“I am confident that with these new initiatives, we will set a new benchmark for nutrition transparency in our industry and accelerate our positive impact on public health.”

ShareAction’s chief executive, Catherine Howarth, said: “A food manufacturer as large as Unilever has the power to improve the health of millions of people across the world. Responsible investors are challenging such companies to step up,” adding: “We hope and expect that others will follow.”

Unilever to update and strengthen its health targets

Meanwhile, Unilever will continue “stretching nutrition targets for its portfolio” as part of its Future Food commitments published at the end of 2020, which set out aims for plant-based sales, reduction of salt, sugar and calories, and increasing the sales of healthier “positive nutrition” products.

The company plans to “update and strengthen” the targets – due to expire at the end of the year – and to revise its Future Foods commitments by October 2022, taking into account its own highest nutritional standards (HNS) and at least six different NPMs “to determine which is the most stretching target benchmark to increase sales of healthier products in a way that maximises positive impact for global consumer health”. It will take guidance from the latest Access to Nutrition Initiative’s assessment and commendations.

“Unilever will continue to engage with ShareAction and investors from the Healthy Markets Initiative as these commitments are developed and implemented in the run up to the 2024 [annual general meeting],” the company said.

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