UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS — Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo, Inc. turned in the highest Corporate Profile scores while Conagra Brands registered the top Product Profile ranking as part of the first U.S. Spotlight Index. The publication of the U.S. Access to Nutrition Index (A.T.N.I.) and its U.S. Spotlight Index mark the first national assessment of the United States’ 10 largest food and beverage manufacturers to addressing nutrition challenges.

“With the launch of the first U.S. Index, we now have a tool that can be used to track what food and beverage companies are actually doing in the United States to help people make healthy choices about what they eat and drink and, we hope, encourage them to go further,” said Inge Kauer, executive director for the Access to Nutrition Foundation. “The U.S. Index is unique in that it provides comprehensive, independent, comparable and objective information about companies’ products, policies, practices and disclosure within the specific health and nutrition context of the United States. It assesses the extent to which food and beverage manufacturers in the United States are working to address the nation’s high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases.”

The U.S. Spotlight Index ranks companies in two ways: Corporate Profile and Product Profile.

Corporate Profile assesses the policies, practices and disclosure of the manufacturers to examine their contributions to increasing people’s access to affordable, healthy foods and beverages. The Corporate Profile score summarizes companies’ performance across seven categories: governance, products, affordability and accessibility, marketing, lifestyles (employee and consumer health and wellness), labeling and engagement.

According to the report, companies with a low rank and score make little, if any, information about their nutrition policies and practices publicly available and typically had minimal or no engagement in the research process. In contrast, companies with a higher rank and score typically publish more information, are engaged in the research process and have stronger nutrition commitments and practices.

The average Corporate Profile score was 3 out of 10. Leading the way was Nestle, with a score of 5.3, followed by Unilever at 4.7 and PepsiCo at 4.4. Rounding out the top 10 were Mars (3.9), Kellogg Co. (3.8), General Mills (2.8), Conagra (1.9), Coca-Cola Co. (1.9), Kraft Heinz Co. (0.8) and Dr Pepper Snapple Group (0.6).

Helping lead Nestle to its top ranking were the company's 14 U.S.-specific nutrition-related commitments on a comprehensive range of topics, including product reformulation, marketing and nutrition labeling, the report said. Additionally, Nestle is one of two companies in the index that publishes an annual U.S.-specific report and the only one to publish it in addition to its global report.

Holding Nestle back from a higher score are its lack of a clear policy on improving the affordability and accessibility of its healthy products and that its marketing to children is deficient in certain areas, the report noted.

“We are proud that A.T.N.I. recognized our steady progress to meet our nutrition commitments, to transparently communicate with consumers and to support the wellness of our employees,” said Wendy Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., vice-president of nutrition, health and wellness at Nestle. “As a business, our growth strategy is driven by a deep focus on how consumers are evolving, which makes our focus on nutrition and wellness ever more relevant. We will conduct a full review of A.T.N.I.’s assessment of our U.S. practices to determine areas where we can further evolve and strengthen our approach.”  

The Product Profile ranking, meanwhile, uses the independent Health Star Rating Nutrient Profiling System to access how healthy companies’ product portfolios are. The Product Profile shows that only 30% of products assessed are healthy, contributing to less than a quarter of 2016 sales across the companies.

Conagra, with a score of 5.8, led the list of 10 companies in terms of Product Profile score. Just behind Conagra were Kraft Heinz, at 5.6, and General Mills, at 5.2. Other companies scores were: Kellogg (4.9), Nestle (4.9), PepsiCo (4.8), Unilever (3.9), Coca-Cola (3.4), Dr Pepper Snapple (3.4) and Mars (1.6).

“The company with the highest percentage of healthy products is Conagra, at 66%,” the report noted. “This is a significant margin over the second company using this measure, Kraft Heinz, for which 41% of products met the healthy threshold of an H.S.R. (Health Star Rating) of 3.5 or more. The bottom-ranked company on this metric is Unilever, with 6% of its products rated healthy, while the proportion of Mars products that has an H.S.R. of 3.5 or more is 9%.”

The 10 food and beverage manufacturers in the index were selected based on total U.S. sales of packaged food, hot drinks and soft drinks in 2016.

“While the 10 largest food and beverage manufacturers in the United States have made some efforts to tackle obesity and diet-related disease in the market, they must make their product portfolios healthier and ensure their healthy products are accessible to all, particularly to those whose access to healthy food is constrained by low income or geographic factors,” the report said. “They must also place greater effort on marketing healthy products.

“Companies' nutrition strategies should encompass comprehensive sets of well-defined targets for improvement in the following areas: product innovation and reformulation, affordability and accessibility of healthy products, responsible marketing, employee health and wellness, consumer education, nutrition labeling, lobbying and stakeholder engagement. Additionally, the companies should be more transparent in their reporting on all key issues and in particular on their progress in meeting their targets.”

The U.S. Spotlight Index received support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For the full report click here.