In the past six years, Nestle successfully reduced the sodium and total sugar content up to 22% and 31% respectively in its mostly widely purchased products in eight major food categories, according to a new study in the European Journal of Nutrition.
It also reduced total fat and saturated fat content across most food categories, with the most significant reductions in milk-based beverages, which saw a 36% drop in total fat and 66% reduction in saturated fat in the past six years. In addition, Nestle cut the saturated fat by more than 10% in half of its popular pizzas, the research revealed.
These reductions helped the company significantly slash total energy per serving up to 16% in six out of eight of the product categories studied – all without reducing the serving size, according to the research.
The company’s success is notable given calls by public health advocates and international regulators, including the World Health Organization, to reformulate food so it has less fat, sugar and sodium, which are associated with preventable diseases.
Nestle made these strides toward healthier foods by developing and applying a nutrient profiling model that goes beyond other similar systems by taking into account different food categories, how people eat food and their different nutritional needs based on age, said Jorg Spieldenner, head of public health nutrition at Nestle Research Center.
He explained to FoodNavigator-USA that other, less exacting nutrient profile models apply “across the board” approaches to assess food and beverage nutrition, and do not consider the different nutritional needs of children and adults.
The Nestle Nutritional Profiling System, however, is unique – and potentially more efficient – because it considers the role of food in the overall diet, such as if it is a meal or snack, and consumers’ different nutritional needs when identifying which foods to reformulate and how.
It then weighs the impact of a food’s nutritional profile based on how much consumers likely will eat and what nutrients they need.
NNPS also is unique in that it considers nutrients that consumers should be encouraged to eat – including protein, calcium, fiber and other elements. The ideal level of the nutrients in each food depends on the eating occasion and could influence how much of less desirable nutrients can stay in a food, Spieldenner said.
However, he was quick to add that NNPS has a “non-compensatory algorithm” that does not allow an unhealthy food to be recategorized as healthy just because it has desirable nutrients added to it.
This feature “is profoundly different than many other profiling systems” and is essential for ensuring reformulations actually improve products’ overall health value, he said.
Finally, these values are all viewed through the lends of consumers’ age – either 4-8 years, 9-11 years or 12 years and older – which roughly corresponds to different nutritional needs and challenges, Spieldenner said.
Using these guidelines, Nestle reformulates an average of 7,000 products a year, but in 2015 it tacked 1,200 to more quickly bring the company’s portfolio up to the its nutritional goals, Spieldenner said.
Reformulation cannot compromise taste
While NNPS helps Nestle identify which foods to reformulate for the most health impact, Nestle still must weigh these recommendations against taste – because if the final product does not taste good, consumers will not eat it, said Cassie Hoover, a registered dietitian and the nutrition, health and wellness manager of Nestle’s Pizza and Snacking division.
Hoover, who co-authored the NNPS study with Spieldenner, explained that consumers are more likely to accept gradual nutritional reformulations than dramatic ones, which they might perceive as changing the taste of a favorite product.
Another strategy Nestle uses is to improve products’ nutritional profiles on the sly when it is addressing other reformulation changes that consumers want – such as a cleaner ingredient deck or enhanced flavor or texture. In those cases, consumers usually embrace a more noticeable change without complaint, Hoover said.
Hoover also advises manufacturers not to announce reductions in sodium, sugar or fat because consumers will perceive these changes as negatively impacting taste, even if they don’t. The exception to this rule is with children’s products, Hoover said. She explained parents are usually open to health claims on the products they feed their family.
Future research needed
Now that Nestle has verified NNPS successfully helps it prioritize which foods to reformulate and how, Spieldenner says researchers should evaluate the extent to which these changes actually impact consumers’ health outcomes.
This would help the company and public health advocates better understand if reformulation efforts are helping or if other measures also should be taken to improve consumers’ health.