Danone, Nestlé, Kraft Heinz baby food ‘unfit for promotion’: ATNI

The nonprofit, which aims to regularly rank makers of commercially available complementary food (CACF) products, has assessed six companies across ten markets.  ATNI’s conclusion? That according to its methodology, all products tested are unsuitable for promotion to infants and young children. Food makers take issue with this finding.

What are complementary foods? And how is ATNI assessing them?

ATNI leans heavily on the World Health Organization (WHO) for its assessment methodology. According to the WHO, CACF products are those marketed for infants and young children aged between six months and three years.

What the WHO wants from CACF labelling

From a labelling perspective, these products should be recommended for this age group, labelled with the words ‘baby’, ‘toddler’, ‘young child’ or something similar. They should also feature an image of a child who either appears to be aged younger than three years or is feeding with a bottle.

In 2022, the WHO published its Nutrient and Promotion Profiling Model (NPPM).​ The Model is complex, but in essence covers health claims, nutrition, marketing, and promotion of baby food for kids within this age group.

This is the methodology ATNI has used to rank the biggest names in commercially available complementary food products baby food products. These include Danone, Hain Celestial, Hero, HiPP, Kraft Heinz, and Nestlé.

Countries assessed include Austria, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the UK.

The most significant finding was that none of the 1,265 CACF products for infants and young children assessed were deemed suitable for promotion for consumption by children aged size months to three years of age. This is because no product was found to meet all NPPM requirements.​

ATNI ranks baby food majors on nutrition

The good news is that most CACF products met requirements for fat, fruit content, sodium, and protein, with varying degrees of compliance. Over three-quarters contained no added free sugar/sweetener, and a majority met sugar requirements.

So where did they score poorly? Most companies scored low on energy density, with only around 70% meeting the criterion for adequate nutrition provision.

Kraft Heinz was judged to have the highest percentage of products meeting nutrition composition requirements (~42%), followed by Hero (~39%) and Danone (~38%).

The last time ATNI assessed complementary food products was in 2021​, when Danone secured the top ranking. But the methodology has since changed​, an ATNI spokesperson explained.

What has not changed, is that even though Danone took the top spot back then, it did not fully comply with the standards and provisions at the time. “So in 2021, it was also ‘failing’ marketing standards,” we were told.

What is the ATNI?

The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) is a nonprofit funded by governments and philanthropies that aims to shift the market towards more nutritious, affordable, and sustainable food.

ATNI is well known to food majors. The nonprofit regularly ranks the leading food and beverage makers in its Global Index, which assesses according to governance and management; the production of healthy, affordable, accessible products; and how they influence consumer choices and behaviour.

The last ranking was published in 2021, with Nestlé taking the top spot, followed by Unilever, FrieslandCampina, Danone, and Arla.

How can companies better align with WHO recommendations?

WHO’s guidance is just that: guidance. But in order to create a level playing field – and in so doing, achieve better alignment across the board – ATNI recommends looking beyond voluntary efforts to mandatory regulation.

In the absence of national legislation, ATNI is urging companies to adhere to WHO’s NPPM for both nutrient composition and labelling. To do so, they need to concentrate on improving energy density, reducing sugar content, enhancing transparency in labelling, and including breastfeeding messages.

Ultimately, the findings highlight the need for ‘concerted’ efforts from stakeholders – including industry and policymakers – to improve the nutritional quality and labelling practices of CACF, believes ATNI.

“Adhering to WHO guidelines will not only ensure high product standards but also contribute to global health goals and disease prevention efforts.”

This week, ATNI also published findings from a study assessing the marketing of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) and complementary food products. While some improvements were found on marketing policies, again ATNI judged that no companies fully comply with the WHO’s policies – in this case the International Code of Marketing on Breast-milk Substitutes. In response, ATNI is calling for tighter regulation.

Why food makers are retaliating

But that food makers are being judged according to guidance, rather than law, makes ATNI’s findings contentious for some. Food makers are adhering to local laws, and in certain instances going above and beyond, we were told.

Nestlé is one company that disagrees with both ATNI’s report approach and conclusions.

“The nutritional criteria of our early childhood foods are based on the latest evidence-based guidelines, dietary recommendations, and fully comply with local laws (which may be based on CODEX or EU Directives, for example),” a company spokesperson told FoodNavigator.

“The ATNI report is based on a nutrient profiling model that has not been adopted in any local legislation and is not based entirely on robust scientific evidence.”

At the same time, Nestlé is guided by WHO’s recommendation concerning sugar: specifically that less than 10% of total dietary energy be attributable to free sugars in its early childhood portfolio. Compliance here is reflected in the ATNI’s report.

Danone, too, takes issue with the ATNI report, arguing that any assessment methodology should be anchored in the regulatory contexts of where a product is on sale. The company regrets this is not reflected in the latest methodology developed by ATNI, a spokesperson told this publication.

“The labelling and nutritional composition of complementary foods for toddlers are strictly regulated, taking into account national health requirements and recommendations. We strictly adhere to these regulations everywhere we operate to offer optimal nutrition for toddlers and support their growth and development.”

Kraft Heinz, on the other hand, did not comment on the report itself. Rather, the food major stressed its dedication to international food standards and local laws and regulations. The company spokesperson continued: “We are committed to the health and wellbeing of mothers, infants and young children and support the WHO’s recommendation that babies are breastfed for the first six months, followed by the introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods.”