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Deeply Talks: Exploring the New Access to Nutrition Index

This year’s Access to Nutrition Index was a mixed bag, showing some progress in the approach major food and beverage corporations take toward nutrition, but significant remaining gaps.

Written by Andrew Green Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A floating vegetable market in Kashmir. Masrat Zahra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The fourth episode of our Deeply Talks series highlighted the latest Access to Nutrition Index, which reveals that some of the world’s largest food and beverage companies have made notable improvements to their nutrition strategies.

The index, released every two years, aims to track the role those companies play in addressing the twin problems of overweight and undernutrition. And despite the gains, the index showed companies still have a long way to go, particularly in providing healthy food choices to consumers.

It also seeks to hold companies accountable for promises they have made to improve their practices. The findings become a tool for civil society and advocacy groups to lobby companies to do better around issues ranging from how they market their products to what goes in them.

For this episode, Andrew Green, Malnutrition Deeply’s managing editor, spoke to Inge Kauer and Paul Vos from the Access to Nutrition Foundation, which compiles and releases the index, about some of the key findings and new additions to this year’s edition. Simon Wright, Save the Children’s director of international development, also joined the discussion, focusing on the role the index plays in their efforts to child nutrition, including the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding.

You can listen to the episode or read an edited and condensed transcript below, featuring highlights from the discussion with Kauer, Vos and Wright.

Malnutrition Deeply: Yesterday marked the launch of the Access to Nutrition Index. Inge, can you walk us through some of the big takeaways in this year’s report?

Inge Kauer: For the first time it includes an assessment of the nutritional quality of the products that the 22 largest companies worldwide are selling, and so that is really new.

We start with the good news. We see in this 2018 index that companies have made progress … There is also bad news, and that is basically related to the outcome of the product profile. The profiling system measures the levels of salts, sugar, saturated fats and also positive ingredients, but only one-third are categorized as healthy, and that is really concerning.

And if you then do a deep dive into the countries that we’ve assessed – we both assessed developed markets as well as developing countries – we see that especially the developing countries are showing lower percentages of healthy foods, and that is of course very concerning if you look at the nutrition crisis.

Malnutrition Deeply: Simon, what were your first reactions to the Index and, more specifically, the component on breast milk substitutes, which has been a key area of work for Save The Children?

Simon Wright: We find the Index such an incredible piece of work every two years. It provides a level of analysis that is way beyond anything that a [nongovernmental organization] could do, and a thoroughness in its approach that really helps to inform the advocacy that we as a child rights organization can use to advocate for better behavior by the companies, but also as a regulation of the companies.

The index as a whole provides us with a very rich set of topics, but for us particularly with our focus on under-five mortality, we think the breastfeeding at the start of life is an area we really need to concentrate on. And what the index gives us is some very robust information that we’re able to use. I think it’s done very fairly.

What I really welcome about the Index is that it does a really important contribution to the whole ecosystem of how the company behavior is regulated, encouraged and can change. And of course there is a need for criticism of the companies, but there’s also a need to identify those that are doing better and to praise them. So I really appreciate the Index. It keeps that broad perspective.

Malnutrition Deeply: Paul, I’m hoping you can talk about the Product Profile – why you decided to include that and what that process for creating it was like.

Paul Vos: In the previous Indexes, we have looked at their policies and their practices but we were not able to assess the healthiness of their product portfolios in depth. And with the product profile assessment that we have done in the current 2018 Index we have been able to add that very important aspect to our assessment of the companies.

We have worked with the George Institute, which is linked to Sydney University in Australia, to do throughout nine countries in the world an assessment of the companies’ five largest product categories regarding the healthiness of their products.

By assessing the products in these nine countries, if they were present in these countries, averaging that and then creating an N score out of all these assessments, we were able to compare the 21 companies in our index on how well they do on product healthiness, which is not everything, because obviously also companies’ marketing practices matter, as well as how they support other aspects related to health. But the healthiness of their products has the core impact on consumer health. Therefore, we have now added that to the Index.

Listen to it here:

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