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Unilever sets precedent on healthier food standards but more remains to be done

Today Unilever set a new standard for global food manufacturers by publishing the healthiness of its portfolio against recognised government-endorsed metrics on nutrition. This is a bold step forward, but more needs to be done to set meaningful targets and drive transparency across the sector.

Today marked an important step forward from Unilever, one of the world’s largest food manufacturers. It has published information identifying the healthiness of its food products, as defined by government-endorsed metrics on nutrition. It has also set a target to grow its proportion of healthier sales, using an in-house model.

In March the food giant committed to introduce a new benchmark for public reporting on the healthiness of food sales, as a direct result of our shareholder resolution backed by 11 institutional and over 100 individual shareholders. In recent months ShareAction has been negotiating with Unilever about the detail of this benchmark.

It is positive that Unilever has published information about the healthiness of its products against six government-endorsed nutrient profiling models, which was requested by our resolution. This allows shareholders to accurately assess the company’s impact on public health through the products in its portfolio. Unilever reports that in 2021, just 30 per cent of its turnover in 16 key markets such as the UK and the United States came from ‘healthy sales’, as defined by the UK Nutrient Profiling model.

The company has also set a new target for 85 per cent of the ‘servings’ it delivers to be compliant with its own nutrient profiling model, the Unilever Science-based Nutrition Criteria (USNC), by 2028.
Setting targets for increasing healthier food sales is an important step that can have a big impact on the nutritional quality of people’s diets and help shape healthier societies.

However, there is a risk that Unilever’s decision to base targets on its own definition of ‘servings’ and use in-house nutritional profiling rather than standardised government-endorsed ones could mislead customers and make it harder for investors to hold the company to account on progress.

Why size matters

Serving sizes are defined by manufacturers and can easily be changed to make a product appear healthier. For example, a standard tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Ice Cream (465ml) is listed by UK retailers as containing five servings of around 100g each. Saying that a tub contains six servings would mean the overall product appears healthier, but not because of any reformulation to reduce calories, fat and sugar.

Serving size varies across markets. The serving size of the very same tub of ice cream on the Ben & Jerry’s global website is 141g. This is because US law requires serving sizes on packaging to be based on how much food people actually consume, and not on what is recommended.

We need credible targets for sales of healthier food and drink

ShareAction is urging food manufacturers to set revenue and volume targets for sales of healthier food and drink using government-endorsed nutrient profiling models. This would enable greater transparency, consistency and accountability across the sector. It is a key step in improving people’s diets and public health.

Britvic and Premier Foods have both set targets based on government-endorsed models, and Premier Foods aims to double its healthy sales by 2030. With our Healthy Markets coalition of investors, we urge Unilever to follow suit, and continue to call on other food manufacturers to step up.

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