Categorized | Americas, Asia, Europe, Features

Consumers, NGOs, and Investors Push for Healthier Private Label Products

Posted on 29 March 2022

by Hans Kraak

Less salt, less sugar, more fiber… This was the general message in a prime time TV commercial from Lidl early this year. The retailer focuses on healthier products in his assortment. The message could have come from any public health service that strives to a more healthy choice of the population. “Thanks for the exposure grocer”, they might say.

Lidl is not the only retailer trying to do their best to reformulate products that are considered as not so healthy, especially products that contain too much sugar or salt. Intakes too high of sugar lead to obesity and other negative effects. Too much salt is related to a high blood pressure and several types of cancer.

On the contrary, more fiber is linked to positive health aspects like a lower LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. A fourth risk factor wasn’t in the Lidl commercial: saturated fatty acids. The latter are also correlated with cardiovascular risks. Let’s forgive the grocer, in a few minute commercial, you would need witchcraft to explain the complicated fatty health story.

Although most grocers and their private label suppliers already have programs to reformulate their products by reducing saturated fat, sugar or salt, still many products in the supermarket isles contain too many of the unhealthy ingredients or too few of the good. But its no wonder, the shopping public loves cookies, chips, crème caramel, chocolate bars, and so on. Me too, they’re yummy, but every time I want to buy one I scratch my head and try not to give in. But sometimes I do. And that is no problem for my health as long as I don’t give in too often. But many shoppers do and that’s why public health services and NGO’s advocate for the production of healthier foods and drinks. Disappointed in the pace in which the food and drink industry reformulates their products, they keep pressing on the governments to make laws that oblige to make healthier products, to make the easy choice the healthy choice.

Unhealthy Promotions

The NGO’s do not only set their sights on the composition of unhealthy products. The promotion of the unhealthy stuff is also under fire. In the UK and Netherlands, the nonprofit organization Questionmark makes the so called superlist every year (1). It shows, on the basis of research, what supermarkets across Europe are doing to make their products or promotions more healthy. Questionmark’s aim is to contribute to a better food system by “creating a movement among different actors in society towards healthy, sustainable, equitable and animal-friendly consumption and production of food. We inspire governments in facilitating, directing and monitoring industry performance and consumer behaviour”, according to the organization.

The latest superlist, from December 2021, shows that supermarkets in the UK are not using their promotional tools to improve people’s diets. To compile the list, Questionmark tracked all promotions of food products in the online stores of the four biggest UK supermarkets Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. It analyzed the health profile of the products, using the UK Government’s Nutrient Profiling Model, which assesses whether products are high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS). “We found that UK supermarkets are heavily promoting unhealthy food and drink products in their online stores”, concludes Questionmark. “Across all four supermarkets, approximately half of all promotions are focused on HFSS food and drink products. Though forthcoming restrictions will ban the most harmful types among these promotions, it leaves ample room for supermarkets to take individual responsibility for healthy eating.”

Investors Influence

The superlist is not just about naming and shaming, Questionmark encourages companies to take responsibility for the influence they have on what their customers buy and consume. At the same time it is not a game without obligation. If not NGO’s or more health conscious consumers pressing on the producers to deliver more health in the supermarket isles, it might be the investors. As health problems are piling up in society, influenced by unhealthy foods and drinks, producers may record – or worse, face – the fate of the tobacco industry.

Illustrative is the campaign of Share Action in January of this year (2). This London based NGO focuses on the highest standards for responsible investment and drives change until these standards are adopted worldwide. Share Action directed an international coalition of institutional investors and individuals to file a shareholder resolution at Unilever, urging the company to adopt ambitious targets to increase the share of healthy foods in its sales (3). “Health is emerging as the next frontier in shareholder activism, driven by the rising social and economic costs of ill-health and the growth of associated regulation”, states the organization. “Obesity rates have tripled since 1975, costing the global economy $2 trillion or 2.8 per cent of GDP each year, similar to the economic impact of smoking.” The resolution was being co-filed by eleven institutional investors representing 215 billion dollar in assets. Unilever, that wholesales in A-brands, responded to the resolution as constructive to the dialogue about healthy foods and drinks. Positive news for private label producers is the outcome of a scientific study on reducing calorie sales from supermarkets own brand products by ‘silent’ reformulation. The investigators conclude: “Reformulation of retailer’s private brands towards lower energy density seems to contribute to lowering the calorie intake in the population with moderate losses in retailer’s sales revenues.” (4)

So, when you tend to smoke, buy or produce unhealthy food or drink, scratch your head, like I do, and see if you can manage not to succumb. Otherwise your head will.

REFERENCES: 1. over-4000-unhealthy-food-promotions-per-week 2. 3. Classified as healthier in accordance with government-endorsed nutrient profiling models (i.e. UK Food Standards Agency NPM (2004/5), Nutri-Score or Australian and New Zealand Health Star Rating). 4. JD, Sommer I. Reducing calorie sales from supermarkets – ‘silent’ reformulation of retailer-brand food products. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017

Hans Kraak
Hans Kraak is educated in biology and journalism and wrote three books about nutrition and health. He worked for the Dutch ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food quality and the Netherlands Nutrition Centre. As editor in chief he publishes in the Dutch Magazine for Nutrition and Dietetics, as a food and wine writer he published in Meininger’s Wine Business International and reports for PLMA Live EU and PLMA USA.

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