“Focus pays off. That’s my No.1 insight from the ten-year USLP nutrition journey,” remarks Carla Hilhorst, Executive Vice President of Unilever Foods and Refreshment R&D, announcing that Unilever has not just met but has even exceeded the ambitious targets it set for its food portfolio in 2010.
In just ten years the business has not only doubled the proportion of foods hitting the globally recognized guidelines for the Highest Nutritional Standards (HNS) to limit sugar, salt, fat and calorie levels in our products, growing from 30% compliance in 2010 to 61% in 2020, but has done so without compromising on taste or texture.
“It is a massive achievement that has a real impact on public health and people’s lives,” Carla says, adding that although achieving this goal has often felt like climbing an immense mountain, she is proud that HNS is such a fundamental part of the company’s DNA.
“I have seen the ownership of HNS growing in the business over the years as well as the confidence that we have the tools to develop great-tasting winning products within those standards. With every step we take, we make the world a little better and many little steps make a big difference in the end,” she says.
The journey began in 2003 when Unilever launched the Nutrition Enhancement Program, based on a profiling system which assessed foods for specific nutrients of concern such as sugar, salt and saturated and trans fats. By 2009, 30,000 products had been reviewed, and by 2010 the business was ready to set out its roadmap to improving the HNS of its food portfolio, based on globally recognized guidelines.
The challenge set out eight pillars on which progress would be measured:
- Compliance to the Highest Nutritional Standards
- Reducing salt
- Reducing sugar
- Reducing saturated fats
- Removing trans fats
- Reducing calories in children’s ice cream
- Reducing calories in packaged ice cream
- Improving nutritional labelling.
Committing to these measurable time-bound targets reasserted Unilever’s mission to provide foods that not only tasted good but were a force for good as well.
Making good food the easy healthy option
Reducing salt, sugar and fats while increasing positive nutrition marked a decisive step toward producing food that was not just delicious, but healthily delicious. By reducing salt content that can lead to raised blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, for example, or sugar that can result in tooth decay and obesity, our brands are helping make healthy food options the obvious options too.
And while processed packaged foods are still seen as the ‘unhealthy’ option by many, it is the nutritional quality of the food that matters. “Processed has become synonymous with unhealthy,” says Carla. “But in reality these foods can contain as much nutritional value as fresh foods and are a convenient and affordable way for many people to get the nutrients they need.”
Feeding an appetite for growth
For one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world, this was a business as well as a social imperative. It was clear that responding to this increasing demand for healthier food would inevitably lead to healthy growth for the business.
“Today, when given the choice, people invariably choose foods that combine great taste and health, are at an affordable price point, and don’t harm the environment,” says Hanneke Faber, President of Foods & Refreshment. “But delivering that type of food to all people, everywhere, requires a fairer, healthier and more sustainable global food system. And, while system change can be difficult, for us as a business, it’s simply a growth opportunity we can’t afford to miss.”
The 2020 results
So how well have we done?
Salt: In 2010 we committed to ensuring that by 2020 75% of our foods portfolio would help consumers stay within the 5g maximum daily intake recommended by WHO. We have exceeded this goal, with 77% of our foods now meeting this criterion. In real terms, this means we have removed more than 37 million tons of salt from our food, the equivalent of almost 15,000 swimming pools.
Sugar: Since 2010 we have reduced the sugar across all our sweetened tea-based drinks by 23% and across our Pepsi–Lipton joint venture by 29%. That represents a saving of almost 170 billion sugar cubes.
Calories: Just four years into the project, our children’s ice creams had already hit their nutritional target, with 100% of them containing 110 calories or less per portion. In 2020, our packaged ice creams followed, with 93% hitting the 250 calories or less target.
Positive nutrients: We are proud to say that in 2020 we provided 126 billion servings of food containing at least one of the key micronutrients: vitamin A, vitamin D, iodine, iron and zinc. We are now on track to hit 200 billion by 2022.
Fats: In April 2021, we will meet the commitment we made to the World Health Organization that industrially produced trans fatty acids will not exceed 2g per 100g of total fat or oil in all foods – two years ahead of the 2023 target.
We have also achieved our goal as regards trans fat, with none of our products currently containing trans fat originating from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Where we go from here
All these milestones bear testimony to how important nutrition has become to the business and the people in it. However, they are milestones – the journey is far from over and the momentum generated over the last ten years will help enable the business to meet them successfully.
So what is next? The Future Foods initiative has provided a roadmap for the next steps in Unilever’s nutritional journey, including new targets. By 2025 the aim is to have doubled the number of foods that deliver positive nutritional value through increasing their fruit, vegetable or micronutrient content.
By 2022, we also hope to see 70% of Unilever’s food portfolio meeting HNS standards and to see 85% of it helping consumers limit their salt intake to no more than 5g per day.
Finally, we want to ensure that 95% of our packaged ice cream contain no more than 22g of sugar per portion and no more than 250 calories.
These are ambitious targets but ones that the team is ready and eager to meet.“I feel enormously proud that we achieved our target on HNS compliant products. It took courage, we had many challenges, but we all believed it was the right thing to do,” says Els de Groene, Global Nutrition Director.
“Overachieving the 60% milestone delivers the message that we take this agenda seriously,” concludes Carla. “But we do not want to stop here. We must continue to raise the bar on nutritional standards, while dialing up positive nutrition.”