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New research from NDPH shows a poor response from leading UK food companies to voluntary nutrient reformulation targets.

Over-consumption of foods high in energy, saturated fat, sugars or salt is a major risk factor for obesity and ill-health. To counter this, Public Health England (PHE) have published voluntary reformulation targets to encourage food manufacturers to reduce the levels of calories, sugar and salt in their products. Until now, progress towards meeting these targets has monitored changes in individual nutrients, rather than the entire nutritional profile of food products. In a new study, published today in PLOS ONE, NDPH researchers assessed how the overall nutritional quality of products offered by the top ten global food and drink companies has changed over recent years.

The researchers used a nutrient profiling model developed by the Food Standards Agency, which scores food products based on their levels of saturated fat, sugar, salt and calories, besides health-promoting nutrients such as fibre and protein. Higher scores indicate healthier foods, and the threshold for a ‘healthy’ product was set at 62 for foods and 68 for drinks. For each year of the study (2015 – 2018), over 3,200 different products were assessed, accounting for almost a quarter of UK retail value sales.

Key results:

  • Between 2015 and 2018, there was little change in the average sales-weighted nutrient profiling score of the top ten companies, or the proportion of products classified as healthy.
  • By 2018, only two companies, Danone and Kraft Heinz, had an average sales-weighted nutrient profile score above the threshold for healthy. Coca-Cola, Mars, Unilever, Nestlé and Mondelez scored poorly, with portfolios dominated by confectionery and snacks.
  • Of the top five brands sold by each of the ten companies, only six brands improved their average nutrient profiling score by 20% or more by 2018.
  • Between 2015 and 2018, the proportion of total volume sales classified as healthy increased from 44% to 51%, driven mainly by increased sales of bottled water, low/no calorie carbonated drinks, and juices. When soft drinks were excluded from the analysis, however, the proportion of foods classified as healthy decreased from 7% to 6%.

According to the researchers, these results indicate that despite PHE’s reformulation targets, there has been no improvement in the nutritional quality of foods that people are buying. They suggest that this method of ranking food and drink companies based on the nutritional quality of their products could be developed into a transparent monitoring and evaluation system. This could enable more targeted work with companies and brands to drive improvements in public health nutrition.

These findings add to previous research from the group, which revealed that between 2015 and 2018, less than half of the leading food brands in the UK had met PHE’s voluntary 5% sugar reduction target.

Study lead Dr Lauren Bandy (NDPH) said: ‘The UK voluntary reformulation targets to reduce calories, fat, sugar and salt do not appear to have led to any recent significant changes in the nutritional quality of foods. The exception is soft drinks, likely driven by the introduction of the Soft Drink Industry Levy in 2018, as indicated by our previous work. For other types of food products, further policy action is needed to provide incentives for companies to make more substantive changes in product composition that will help consumers to achieve a healthier diet.’