Study assesses and compares for the first time the commitments and practices for a healthier food environment of the largest food companies in Belgium
The BIA-Obesity project studied for the first time the commitments and practices of Belgium's largest food companies in the area of nutrition, health and obesity prevention. For each company, their nutrition-related commitments and practices were assessed and summarized in a scorecard based on an internationally standardized method. The study allows us to see where companies score well in their contribution to a healthier food environment, where they can do better and how they perform compared to their peers.
Obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are major health problems in Belgium and are, among others, caused by an unhealthy food environment. An unhealthy food environment is an environment where circumstances (economic, physical and policy) make it easier to choose unhealthy foods and drinks than healthy foods. Besides the government, the food industry also has an important role to play in creating a healthier food environment.
Sciensano selected the 31 largest food companies in Belgium in the following sectors: packaged food and non-alcoholic beverage manufacturers (N=19), quick-service restaurants (N=7) and supermarkets (N=5).
The researchers then applied the internationally developed "Business Impact Assessment on Obesity and Population Nutrition" (BIA-Obesity) method in Belgium for the first time. This method evaluates companies' commitments and practices in 6 action areas:
- The company's nutrition strategy
- Product formulation
- Product labelling
- Product and brand promotion
- Product accessibility
- Relationships with other organisations.
For all 31 selected companies, the publicly available commitments in these 6 action domains were analyzed. This included an analysis of company websites, annual reports, press releases and websites of federations and governments. The researchers also contacted the companies to supplement and confirm the publicly available information. More than half of the selected companies (N=18) responded and actively participated in the research process.
Commitments by Belgian food companies
The overall scores for companies' commitments to improving population nutrition and obesity prevention in 2020 ranged from 2% to 75%. This means that there is a wide variation in commitment scores between companies, all of which can still make great strides in improving their commitments. In general, scores for quick service restaurants were lower than for supermarkets and manufacturers of packaged food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Most companies had a nutrition strategy in place. Some companies committed to display the Nutri-Score on their products or to reduce the levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat in specific product categories. However, commitments within the action areas 'Product accessibility' and 'Product and brand promotion' were the weakest.
Within the domain 'Company nutrition strategy', the researchers looked at the company's overall policies and commitments towards obesity prevention and the improvement of nutrition and health of the population. Within the 'Product Accessibility' domain, the availability and affordability of 'healthier' foods compared to 'less healthy' foods were assessed. For example, the share of healthy products within the complete product portfolio of a food company and its pricing and discounting strategy were examined. Within the domain of "Product and brand promotion", commitments to reduce children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising were examined.
"A key point, supported by other research, is that current voluntary commitments to limit marketing aimed at children are not effective. Food companies promise not to target children directly, but this does not prevent a large number of children from being exposed to advertising for unhealthy foods. Food companies should definitely tighten up their policies and actions in this area," says Sciensano researcher Stefanie Vandevijvere.
Practices of the Belgian food companies
The researchers looked not only at the commitments of the food companies, but also at their business practices in terms of product formulation, product labelling and product and brand promotion.
Manufacturers of packaged food and non-alcoholic beverages:
- Of the 18 selected manufacturers in 2018, there were only 2 where more than half of the products in their portfolio had a Nutri-Score A. For 5 companies, more than half of their range consisted of products with Nutri-Score E.
- 3 out of 18 manufacturers had a product portfolio consisting entirely of ultra-processed foods.
- 5 out of 18 manufacturers had in their portfolio only products that are not allowed to be advertised to children according to World Health Organisation guidelines.
- At the end of 2019, 34% of the products of Iglo and Danone featured the Nutri-Score. Both companies thus performed best for this indicator.
- In the supermarkets of Carrefour, Colruyt, Delhaize and Lidl, half of the products in their range had a Nutri-Score C in 2018. For Aldi, this was D.
- Delhaize mentioned the Nutri-Score on the front of 30% of its products by the end of 2019, scoring best for this indicator.
- Of the 5 selected supermarkets, Aldi promoted fresh fruit and vegetables in its flyer the most often and Colruyt the least.
Quick service restaurants:
- Half of the products in all 5 quick-service restaurants for which the product portfolio could be analysed had a Nutri-Score C.
- Less than 50% of the product portfolio of these quick-service restaurants may be advertised to children according to the guidelines of the World Health Organisation.
- 4 fast-service restaurants had more than 50% of their outlets in Flanders within 500m of a primary school.
Researcher Stefanie Vandevijvere concludes: "The BIA-Obesity scores show that there is still a lot of room for improvement for Belgian food companies, especially when it comes to reducing the advertising of unhealthy foods aimed at children and the accessibility (i.e. offer and price) of healthy products. This first BIA-Obesity evaluation for Belgium provides tailored recommendations for each company to encourage them to improve their commitments and their practices. These include a broader application of the Nutri-Score, the setting of concrete objectives to reduce the salt, sugar, saturated fat and energy content within the entire range of products, and the elimination of advertising techniques with a strong appeal to children that are used to promote unhealthy foods.