According to Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestlé UK & Ireland, the group is well-positioned to help combat public health challenges such as obesity and other non-communicable diseases. The Kit Kat to Nescafe maker supplies 80 brands in the UK and Ireland and high household penetration levels mean that the company can make a “big difference”, Agostini suggested.
“More than 97% of UK households consume a Nestlé product at some point, and more than 2bn of our products are sold annually in the UK and Ireland. That means we have a huge responsibility to help improve public health but it also means that, when we do improve our products, we can make a big difference,” Agostini said as he unveiled an update on Nestlé’s reformulation efforts to date.
The company said that it has reduced 60bn calories from across its business in the UK and Ireland since 2015. Of this, 19bn calories have been taken out of Nestlé’s confectionery brands, the company noted.
As part of its commitment to reduce sugar in its confectionery brands by 10%, the company has already achieved a 7.4% cut in sugar. Across its entire portfolio in the UK and Ireland, the company has cut the use of sugar by the equivalent of 2.6bn teaspoons.
Things will only get worse?
Data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that obesity levels are rising in the UK. In 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese. Obesity prevalence increased from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015.
Obesity related health issues are placing an increased strain on the National Health Service. According to the ONS, in 2015/16 there were 525,000 admissions in NHS hospitals where obesity was recorded as the primary or secondary diagnosis. This is an increase of 19% on the previous year.
Agostini stressed that urgent action is required to turn the tide of rising obesity levels in the UK and Ireland.
“We will be doing more than ever to improve our much loved products. Obesity and related illnesses affect the health of millions of people in the UK and the trends show that things will only get worse,” he noted.
“It is our job as well as of everyone involved in the industry to find the right solutions to tackle the public health challenge while maintaining consumer trust in the quality and taste of our products. For this to work we need an industry that is operating on a level playing field and investing in research and development, new technologies and innovations that bring about real and significant change. At Nestlé, we are determined to play a full part in delivering the change that is needed.”
Nestlé reformulation efforts are in line with UK public health policy, with the UK government introducing voluntary industry targets for reformulation as part of its Childhood Obesity programme. In a bid to combat NCDs and improve people’s diets, the government will introduce a tax on high sugar drinks next month.
Regulators have also turned their attention to overall calorie reduction, with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England calling for a 20% calorie reduction across various categories by 2024.
However, a spokesperson for Nestlé stressed that while “we need action from the whole food industry” Nestlé does not back increased governmental action to deliver that “level playing field”.
“We are supportive of the voluntary targets in the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan. This is not a call for firmer government targets which are already very ambitious,” the spokesperson commented.
Reformulation will be one of Nestlé’s research and development priorities moving forward. “We are working hard to improve the taste and nutrition of our products because we know consumers are looking for healthier choices that still taste great. So for us, it is about doing the right thing for our consumers. Our expertise in R&D allows us to do that,” the spokesperson added.
In contrast, health campaign group Action on Sugar applauded the government's recent intervention via the new calorie reduction targets but also emphasised that there is a need for a voluntary approach to be supported by an enforcement mechanism.
"In order for [government targets] to be successful, it is imperative that the 20% calorie reduction targets are properly enforced and transparent. We also need clear guidance from Government on what will happen if the food industry fails to comply, as it is vital that the industry is given a level-playing field and all companies, both retail and out-of-home, fully cooperate," argued Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar.