The Tortoise Better Food Index ranks Britain’s 30 biggest suppliers on their impacts across issues including nutrition, environment, and social mobility.
The key finding: no one is doing enough. And some of the most worrying themes emerge on nutrition and eco-reporting
The phrase ‘junk food’ was once preserved for HFSS staples like chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks and cereals. But what if it needs expanding? What if your muesli, sliced loaf of bread, your ready meal, or your orange marmalade, are all just as problematic as those old stalwarts?
There’s a growing clamour for such reclassification, in large part due to the relatively new idea of ‘ultra-processed foods’ (UPFs). The term, first coined by Brazilian scientists in 2010, might be relatively new, but it’s gaining huge traction as a way to explain our global obesity crisis and the problems with the food industry.
What is a UPF? The definitions are hazy and disputed, but “a good rule of thumb is that it’ll be wrapped in plastic and contain an ingredient you don’t find in a domestic kitchen”, according to celebrity doctor Chris van Tulleken, whose recent book Ultra Processed People poured further fuel on the processed fire.
The issue for these foods isn’t just that they are high in fat, salt and sugar, have typically low nutrient levels and a tendency to be overconsumed. The case goes that UPFs are harmful due to the very act of their processing.
The science behind why this is remains inconclusive. Some experts claim these foods are made too soft and therefore too digestible, meaning people eat too quickly and the body’s mechanisms for telling people when they’re full can’t keep up. Others suggest the additives within them interfere with the body’s hormonal systems. The counter argument is that perhaps they are just delicious, meaning people tend to eat more of them.
Regardless, the broad consensus that these foods are bad for us means that the role of the food industry in fuelling their consumption is worthy of examination. Especially as in the UK ultra-processed foods make up 50% of household food purchases, more than anywhere else in Europe, according to a 2017 study.
In this light, the second annual update of the Tortoise Better Food Index, published this week, sets out to examine just how Britain’s 30 largest food and drink companies are contributing to the country’s health problem. And the findings are stark. More than two in three products collected to represent their product ranges are ultra-processed food. At four companies – Warburtons, Kellogg’s, Mars and Pladis – representative product portfolios collected by Tortoise contained nothing but ultra-processed food.
Tortoise used the NOVA methodology to define UPFs, a widely used food classification system that separates foods into four categories based upon their level of processing. While group 1 is minimally processed food like fruit, meat, or milk, group 4 is the ultra-high processed foods that contain additives and have undergone industrial techniques.
But it also looked beyond health, casting an eye over the environmental credentials, the social impact, and the transparency of Britain’s biggest food makers. The team spent the six months combing through the publicly available information from each company, including financial documents, sustainability reports, and regulatory information. It assessed everything from the average fibre content of their products to the percentage of waste they recycle, and then ranked the companies ranked on a range of scores including environmental, nutrition, and financial sustainability. The index has been shared with all participating companies to allow them to provide amendments to the data and give feedback on our methodology, incorporating this where relevant.
In this year’s ranking, Cranswick, a pork and poultry producer, topped the table with a score of 33 out of 100. Cranswick has the most transparent reporting of all of the companies this year, a key focus of the index as transparent reporting is crucial for driving change in the food sector, says Maddy Diment, lead researcher on the project.
The index also assesses companies on the affordability and nutritional quality of the food, and here Cranswick performed strongly. Yet its score of 33 reflects the fact that no company in the index is performing well across every facet of sustainability. Cranswick, for example, is falling short on its use of renewable energy, its effort to address deforestation, and paying staff a real living wage.
“To perform well across the board, any company would need to fundamentally change their business model,” says Kate Cawley, founder of Veris Strategies, which works with major food businesses on transforming their sustainability strategy. “And that’s the problem. Everyone is taking this incremental approach where they continue doing what they’re doing, but just trying to make it a little less bad.”
“They play to their strengths,” agrees Richard Profit, CEO of the Cool Farm Alliance, which works with the agriculture sector to drive sustainable change. “So they’ll get on the podium and talk about what they know they can talk about, and then try to brush under the carpet the stuff they can’t deal with. Or what’s just too difficult.”
‘If it was solely based on nutrition, they should all be numbers 98, 99 and 100’
At the foot of the ranking is Sofina UK, one of Canada’s largest food producers and a major meat and seafood processor. It sunk to the bottom largely due to its opaque reporting and poor environmental impact.
Nestlé was last year’s winner, but slipped to second place this time around. It scored highly on environmental performance and social impact – it’s one of only three companies in the index to pay the real living wage – but is ranked 20th on nutrition. Some experts are concerned to see it anywhere near the top.
“I fear this gives Nestlé a halo. If it was solely based on nutrition at least, they should all be numbers 98, 99 and 100,” says Henry Dimbleby, author of the National Food Strategy. “They’re all bad.”
Dimbleby is coming off the back of a recent run-in with Nestlé after it branded its new Kit Kat cereal as “tasty and nutritious”.
“Tasty and er, nutritious,” Dimbleby responded on Twitter. “This really is taking the piss Nestlé. FFS.”
Nestlé rejects the idea it acted misleadingly. “The only place the word appeared was on the global website for Kit Kat Cereal,” says a spokesman. “The claim is admissible and factual (therefore not a false claim) but it was removed to avoid confusion and maintain consistency across multiple markets.”
Yet as the Tortoise index makes clear, its product range is failing to match up with its claim to offer ‘world-leading nutrition’. Two thirds of Nestlé’s products sold are ultra-processed, according to the Better Food Index, and about half contain ‘red’ level amounts of sugar or saturated fat, as shown on nutrition labels.
And Nestlé is under growing pressure to address this. In April, 26 investors responsible for over $3 trillion wrote to the company calling on it to commit to setting targets to improve its impact on population health. In a statement co-ordinated by responsible investment group ShareAction, investors urged the company “to grasp the opportunity to stay ahead of food-related regulation and evolving consumer expectations”.
“Nestlé says it wants to sell more healthy food, but it hasn’t given assurance that it will also address its less healthy food sales, which is essential to turn the tide against the harmful effects of diet-related ill health,” says Simon Rawson, ShareAction’s deputy CEO.
Nestlé insists it is responding. In March, it claimed to set a new standard for transparent reporting after revealing nearly 40% of its sales of everyday food products in the UK were high in salt, sugar or fat. It also intends to set targets to grow “the more nutritious part of its portfolio”, the spokesman added.
But it’s not just Nestlé in the firing line. ShareAction also took aim at Unilever last year, arguing that while the company punches above its weight on issues like the environment, it’s fallen behind on nutrition. The Tortoise Food Index backs this up, for while Unilever is indeed first on environmental action, it comes third bottom on nutrition.
‘We’re not going to get a healthier food system unless the government intervenes’
The pressure is telling in Unilever’s case, with it agreeing last year to publish more rigorous data on the fat, sugar and salt in its food products. It will also set itself targets for improvement.
But what can it realistically do to change an entire system? Henry Dimbleby recounts an incident in which the boss of a major food manufacturer told their staff: “we’re not the f***ing NHS. It is not our job to keep people healthy.” Comments like these have led Dimbleby to conclude that “we’re not going to get a healthier food system unless the government intervenes”.
Charlie Curtis previously worked at Marks & Spencer, where she spent time developing products. She agrees that too often, health and nutrition simply isn’t a priority. “When we developed a product we had the decision: should it be healthier? Should it taste better? Should it look better? Healthier was never really at the top of the list, to be perfectly honest. It was always: let’s make it taste better or look better.”
The Better Food Index highlights a problem in that such diverse issues often emerge as trade-offs. When a company scores well on nutrition it typically scores poorly on environment. When it scores highly on environment, it often scores poorly on nutrition. This is despite “sustainability and health being inextricably linked,” says Cawley. “Yet no one on this list is joining the dots to tackle them as one thing.”
Doing so could certainly help. A WWF report earlier this month found shifting to a healthier diet could transform agriculture and dramatically cut emissions. By adopting the Livewell recommendations of eating less meat, more plants, and fewer foods high in fat, salt and sugar, the UK could cut emissions by 36%, alongside a 20% reduction in biodiversity loss compared with the current average diet, the report found.
Things are arguably moving in the right direction. The Better Food Index shows five more companies have begun reporting Scope 3 emissions in the past 12 months, taking the total to 26 out of 30. Over half of the companies are also reporting what are judged to be realistic Scope 3 emissions (a value higher than the company’s Scope 1 & 2 emissions), up from 12 last year.
But there are areas for improvement. The meat sector has the patchiest Scope 3 emissions reporting with seven out of 10 companies either not reporting Scope 3 or clearly under-reporting it drastically. For example, Moy Park reported 80 tonnes of Scope 3 emissions in 2021, equating to 0.05% of its total emissions. This is clearly false. On average, Scope 3 accounts for 90%-95% of emissions, according to Wrap. Moy Park says it is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2040 and has a “robust strategy” to achieve it.
Mike Barry, former director of sustainability at M&S, believes meat’s performance is in large part due to becoming commoditised throughout its supply chain. “Meat is bought as a commodity. The feed that goes into it is commoditised. That makes it really hard to get your arms around Scope 3 data for meat.”
The public perception of meat may also be a consideration, he says. “The meat industry feels right in the crosshairs of challenge. And it’s not quite like the Millwall chant [“We are Millwall. No one likes us. We don’t care”], but there’s a bit of throwing the wagons in and saying: ‘don’t be the weakest link in the chain by coughing up your data, because it exposes the rest of us’.”