The world’s largest food company Nestlé has confessed that most of its products aren’t healthy, as experts warn Australia is “lagging behind” on tackling the obesity epidemic and holding food giants to account.
The Financial Times reported this week that an internal company presentation circulated to Nestlé executives acknowledged that most of the company’s mainstream food and drinks products do not meet a “recognised definition of health”.
The presentation highlighted the fact that in Australia, just 37 per cent of Nestlé’s mainstream food and beverage products garnered a health star rating above 3.5.
“Some of our categories and products will never be ‘healthy’ no matter how much we renovate,” the presentation said.
Nestlé boasts more than 2000 subsidiaries including Maggi, Milo, KitKat, Milo, Allen’s, Uncle Tobys, Le Snak, Sustagen and Cheerios.
The firm brands itself with the slogan “good food, good life”, and claims on its website to be “unlocking the power of food to enhance quality of life for everyone, today and for generations to come”.
“As a responsible company we have internal discussions all the time about how to improve our portfolio. What’s important is that we hold ourselves to high standards and constantly ask where we can do better,” Nestlé Oceania said in a statement to The New Daily.
The statement said Nestlé began “updating” its “nutrition strategy and future commitments” in January, and would share the outcome of the work in early 2022.
Nestlé shines light on junk food industry profits
Nestlé’s internal acknowledgement of their products’ lacklustre health ratings shows “what we’ve known for years, which is that big food companies are making huge profits from selling junk food”, The George Institute food policy expert Alexandra Jones told The New Daily.
“I think it shows the power of benchmarking food companies by objective standards of healthiness like the health star rating,” Dr Jones said.
Nestlé is not the only culprit when it comes to unhealthy foods, with most of the big-name food and beverage players – including Coca Cola and chocolate maker Mondelez – also profiting from pushing unhealthy snacks and drinks, she said.
Benchmarking companies using systems such as the health star rating is “a good strategy to encourage them to do better”, but with diet-related diseases the leading cause of ill health in Australia much more needs to be done, Dr Jones said.
In Australia, two in three (67 per cent) of adults were overweight or obese in 2017-18, according to statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and one in four (25 per cent) children and adolescents aged two to 17 were overweight or obese.
In 2017-18, an estimated 1.2 million Australians (4.9 per cent of the total population) had diabetes, according to self-reported data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Health Survey.
But the Australian government is “lagging behind” other countries when it comes to restricting junk food marketing, taxing unhealthy foods and labelling, Dr Jones said.
“If we want companies to make healthier products, I think we need to make junk food less attractive to consumers and less profitable,” she said.
“We shouldn’t be leaving it in the hands of food companies to address the obesity epidemic. We need to make a policy environment that makes junk food less profitable.”
The pandemic isn’t our only public health crisis
While the COVID-19 pandemic is currently dominating our lives, there’s another public health crisis that isn’t going away.
“Our unhealthy diets are the biggest health problem facing the country”, Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre associate professor Gary Sacks told The New Daily.
To tackle the obesity crisis governments need to step in “to change the rules and set up a system where food companies can’t push those products, where taxes are in place so it’s not super cheap to buy unhealthy stuff”, Dr Sacks said.
“It’s the very environment we live in that creates a situation where it’s just all too easy to consume unhealthy food,” he said.
“When you’re in the supermarket, the end of aisle displays are full of half priced chocolates, and half the products in the supermarket aren’t very good for you. But they’re colourful, and they’re heavily marketed and priced to go.
“It’s not that people set out to buy junk food, it’s that the world we live in pushes it at us.”
Food giants such as Nestlé need to be held accountable for their role in the rise of diet-related diseases around the world, Dr Sacks said.
“The biggest food companies around the world have the biggest influence on what products we have available and how it’s marketed to us,” he said.
“So in that sense big food companies that sell a lot of unhealthy food do play a major role in driving unhealthy diets.”