New US index will evaluate publicly how companies address malnutrition’s ‘double burden’

New US index will evaluate publicly how companies address malnutrition

To stimulate public debate about the “double burden” of malnutrition in the United States and spur food and beverage companies in the nation to improve the nutritional profile of and access to their products, the publisher of the influential Access to Nutrition Index will release a US-specific index next Spring.

First published in 2013 and again in 2016, the Global Access to Nutrition Index “tracks the products, practices and policies of major international companies as it relates to the public health problems of obesity and under-nutrition,” Victoria Kumpuris Brown, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which helps fund the index, said earlier this month at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, DC.

The index “makes transparent what we might not know, what these companies are doing, how they relate, how they compare from year to year. And it is starting a conversation in the companies in terms of what they can do to improve, but it also is a great tool for those of us working in the field, for investors and for other stakeholders that want to know where companies are spending their time and resources as it relates to the obesity epidemic,” she added.

In the years between the first and second index, the 25 largest international food and beverage giants in the reports significantly increased their engagement with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the independent non-profit that researches and publishes the index, and their efforts to address poor nutrition and the related negative health outcomes, said Inge Kauer, executive director for the Access to Nutrition Foundation.

“Between 2013 and 2016, there was enormous progress with the companies” to address malnutrition either by removing sugar, sodium and fat from their products, restricting the portions of indulgent items, improving the nutrient density of other products and increasing access to their nutritious options in underserved areas, Kauer said.

She explained that many of these improvements reflect companies’ growing sense of social responsibility, but it is also in their financial interest to meet consumers’ increasing demand for healthier foods and more ethical practices.

For example, she noted that the reports show “some companies in the United States lost billions of income because they did not convert quickly enough to meet this demand of consumers.”

For companies like these, the index is a useful tool because it also provides best practices and a roadmap for growth by meeting the modern consumers’ needs, she added.

“Our focus is to provide a benchmark for the companies. So, the index shows how companies are currently performing, but it also shows them how the can move forward and is a roadmap for change. We provide a lot of best practices in our report for companies to learn from their peers or where they can improve and how they can properly implement that,” Kauer said.

The reports also make recommendations for policy makers, society organizations and investors, which can help level the playing field and create an environment in which companies can make the changes that are needed by holding them collectively accountable, she added.

Based on these strong initial results, as well as “a lot of appetite and positive response here in the US community to creating an index” that is more narrowly focused and tailored to the region, GAIN is excited to publish soon an index specifically for the United States.

Evaluation criteria

To do so, GAIN will use publically available information, including company commitments and financial results, to assess companies on more than 100 indicators in seven categories, including

  • Governance – the general strategies companies have around nutrition, how they structure and manage their company, the level of involvement by the CEO, boards and others and whether compliance or achieving nutrition-related goals are linked to incentives or specific targets.
  • Products – what targets companies set to reduce negative ingredients and increase positive ingredients, how they evaluate their products’ nutrient profiles and nutritional quality and their progress on product reformulation.
  • Accessibility and availability of products – the extent to which consumers can access reformulated and healthy products, including in remote areas, how they price products and their distribution strategies.
  • Marketing – the companies’ policies and performance for marketing to adults and children, what pledges they make and whether they comply, whether they are transparent about their performance and consumers’ assessment of their marketing efforts.
  • Lifestyle – what are companies doing to improve the health of their employees at work and home.
  • Labeling – whether companies comply with regulations and whether their claims are accurate and not misleading.
  • Breast milk substitute marketing – a niche category that looks at how companies comply with international standards for breast milk substitutes and how they are marketed.

The specific indicators within these categories are still in flux as the organization continues to engage with stakeholders to develop a tool that offers optimal benefits, Kauer said. Once the methodology is determined, GAIN hopes to publish the US index in May or June 2018, shortly after in publishes the next global index in March 2018, she said. 

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