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Expert Perspective

How One Nonprofit Measures Food Companies’ Commitments to Kids and Families—And Pushes for Change

Food marketing to children

Greg Garrett

Executive Director, Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI)


January 31st, 2023


In October 2022, the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) released its second U.S. Access to Nutrition Index. The Index, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, assessed the 11 largest food and beverage manufacturers in the U.S. on the healthiness of their product portfolios, as well as their nutrition-related commitments, policies, and disclosures. ATNI found that, since the first Index was published in 2018, companies have shown little progress on their commitments to make, market, and sell healthy food and drinks. The 2022 Index was released weeks after the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, where many food and beverage industry leaders were notably silent on large public commitments to facilitate change. 

We asked ATNI Executive Director Greg S. Garrett about the implications of the group’s findings for the health of children and families and how the learnings from the Index can be used to transform the U.S. food and beverage market.

Can you tell us about ATNI and your U.S. Index?

ATNI is an international nongovernmental organization focused on transforming markets to improve access to nutritious, affordable foods for all, in order to prevent diet-related illnesses and deaths. We develop data-driven tools that spur the food industry to provide healthier food and drinks at affordable prices for all. One of these tools, the U.S. Index published last October, is our second deep-dive report assessing how the 11 largest food and beverage manufacturers in the U.S. perform across a number of areas such as governance and marketing.

What implications do ATNI’s findings have for children’s and families’ health?

As a whole, the companies we studied (see Figure 1 below for the list of companies) are not delivering on their commitments to make, market, and sell healthy food and drinks to U.S. families. We assessed their product portfolios – measuring the nutritional quality of over 11,000 food and beverage products, and found that they have not become any healthier since 2018. For all companies, healthier products accounted for less than half of their sales. Measures to shield children and adolescents from irresponsible marketing of unhealthy products also need significant improvement. 

Note: in parenthesis number of products included in the assessment. ATNI uses the Health Star Rating (HSR) threshold of 3.5 stars or more to classify products as generally healthier.

Roughly one in six children in America face food insecurity and, at the same time, rates of obesity, diet-related diseases, and other nutrition and health inequities remain high among many children and families. While it’s encouraging that many companies have voiced commitments to and made some progress on delivering healthier products to consumers, American families cannot afford such slow progress. 

What changes does your report recommend food and beverage companies make?

Companies can do better at every level, from the boardroom to the supermarket shelf. Based on the findings of our 2022 U.S. Index, we recommend that companies take actions to improve the affordability and accessibility of their healthier products, specifically for consumers with low incomes; adopt an easy-to-understand front-of-pack labeling system; limit the marketing of unhealthier products; and increase the age threshold for their marketing to 18 years, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Companies should also develop comprehensive strategies to improve the overall healthiness of their products. Most notably, we call on all companies to support and refrain from lobbying against public policies that improve public health and address obesity.

How can we turn commitments into action and achieve faster progress in ensuring U.S. families can access affordable, nutritious food?

One of the major obstacles to progress is the limited accountability measures that help turn commitments into action. However, there is reason for optimism. ATNI has worked with the food and beverage industry over the last few years to safeguard children and adolescents from the marketing of unhealthy products, and 2022 saw both Nestlé and Unilever commit to not advertise unhealthy products to children under age 16. However, we need more companies to make these commitments, along with effective and enforceable legislation preventing the marketing of unhealthy products to children, to ensure that all companies make and deliver related commitments.

Our goal is to transform markets so that at least half of food and beverage sales are derived from healthy products by 2030, contributing to healthy diets for all. As part of our new five-year strategy (2023-2027) – and as ATNI celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year – we intend to take a bolder and broader approach to our work. Over the next five years, we will leverage the data and findings from the U.S. Index and our other benchmarks to convene key actors in the food system to inform policy that influences markets and industry and holds key actors accountable. We will pull on political and financial levers to design markets that not only require companies to deliver on commitments to make their products healthier but incentivize them to do so. Improved investments, better regulation, an empowering legislative framework, and holding the corporate world more accountable will ensure that industry is increasingly part of the solution.

About the Author

Greg Garrett
Executive Director, Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI)

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