Are the top food and beverage companies in the world doing enough to tackle the “spiralling double burden” of under-nutrition and obesity?

Apparently not, says the second report by Access to Nutrition Index that finds companies still have a long way to go for tackling the growing nutrition crisis.

Low score by companies

The Index, evaluating 22 of the largest companies, found that none had scored more than 6.4 on 10 when evaluated on their nutrition-related commitments. While some companies had taken positive steps, the industry as a whole was moving far too slowly, Inge Kauer, Executive Director of Access to Nutrition Foundation, told BusinessLine.

The Netherlands-based non-profit organisation publishes the Index – funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

One in three people worldwide are either overweight or undernourished, and against this backdrop the Foundation expects its Index to work as a scorecard for companies to improve their products, access and affordability, as well as label their products responsibly, etc.

The Index could also help guide decisions of governments, non-government organisations, and investors who make decisions using information provided in the scorecard, says Kauer.

Since its launch in 2013, more than 40 investment firms have become signatories to the Index Investor Statement, with over $3 trillion of assets under management, she said.

India study

The first of its kind India-specific “Spotlight Index” is expected later this year. India has among the highest burdens of under-nutrition in the world, with 39 per cent of children stunted in their early growth by poor diet, the Foundation said.

Glass of Milk

A pilot study in 2013 was done to test the methodology, though the report had not been published. Participating in the India pilot study were Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever, PepsiCo, Britannia, Parle, Mother Dairy, Amul, ITC and Kerala Milk Marketing Federation.

The report will be important in India to help consumers make healthy choices, said Kauer, and for companies to indulge in responsible labelling and marketing.

The study comes at a time when India witnesses a hi-decibel discussion around food ingredients and labelling, against the backdrop of Nestle’s Maggi noodles controversy.

Given the prevalence of under-nutrition in India, companies should work with the Centre to tackle it, she added.

Study and findings

In the global study, companies were assessed on their corporate strategies and governance related to nutrition, development and delivery of affordable products and positive influence on consumer choice and behaviour.

Also evaluated were the practices of the world’s largest baby food manufacturers, to see if their marketing of breast-milk substitutes (BMS) was aligned with international standards.

The Index methodology was developed with inputs from various quarters, including the World Health Organisation, and it looks at 198 indicators linked to international standards, said Kauer.

Unilever, Nestlé and Danone topped the Index for having integrated nutrition into their business models to produce healthier products, the report said. For example, they incorporated lower levels of sugar, salt and fats and higher levels of healthier ingredients. Mars and FrieslandCampina have risen the most on the 2016 Index.

As companies expand into emerging economies, they must work with governments and civil society to find innovative ways to provide affordable and accessible nutritious foods for poorer people, says Kauer.

Only four 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.

On breast milk substitutes, the study said companies need to have strong policies not just in their home markets but also in emerging markets where prevailing laws may be weak.

Their research revealed that companies were not fully compliant with the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.