Pressure from a shareholder-led campaign group has resulted in major food and drink companies making their products healthier, research shows.

The hounding of companies including Unilever, Nestlé and Tesco by ShareAction’s Healthy Markets Initiative (HMI) had resulted in a “significant shift” in policy since the campaign launched in 2019, found a study conducted by consulting firm Steward Redqueen.

The study found supermarkets were moving “significantly faster/further” than suppliers, and the proportion of those embedding long-term targets was much higher.

Not-for-profit body ShareAction, backed by a group of institutional shareholders and the Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation, was instrumental in Tesco agreeing to targets to increase its sales of healthier food in 2021.

The next year, Unilever made a ground-breaking move among suppliers by agreeing to benchmark its sales based on the UK’s nutrient profiling model.

The report found nine of 12 global manufacturers targeted by the campaign and six of the 11 retailers were now reporting their percentage of healthy sales as a proportion of overall sales.

However, while five of those supermarkets had now embedded longer-term sales targets based on health, only four out of 12 global manufacturers had done so.

Nestlé is one of those having been attacked by ShareAction for not setting long-term targets.

The report found that HMI had been at least partly responsible for a “significant shift” forward in health, with the campaign including filing two shareholder resolutions, sending 63 company letters, and engaging with 97 investors in total.

The shareholder resolutions field at Tesco and Unilever AGMs had led to “positive spill-over events” which caused a chain reaction among other companies, it said.

Yet the ShareAction campaign was criticised elsewhere in the report, with the researchers claiming it “lacked concrete objectives” and could also be more effective at communicating its goals to the industry.

It was also criticised for singling out companies including Tesco and Unilever, despite them being recognised as among the most progressive companies on health.

The study called on ShareAction to “more explicitly” list its aims with how they could influence taking health inequalities caused by the cost of living crisis.

The study concluded the campaign had “successfully made the case for investor pressure as a mechanism to change company practices on topics of health.”

“It’s critical we stem the flow of unhealthy foods, and that requires commitment from food businesses to this issue,” said HMI programme director Jessica Attard. 

“There continues to be a need for better, more consistent reporting across the food sector, in particular from manufacturers.

“Investors, as owners of these food companies, have an important role and responsibility to use their influence to engage companies on health, and drive healthier outcomes.

“The growth in our signatory group demonstrates a growing acceptance that nutrition is a financially material issue for the industry, but more investors still need to come on-board and show leadership on this important issue.”

Attard said the group was also continuing to work with the Food Foundation and its Investor Coalition on Food Policy to call on the UK government to set mandatory reporting standards for the industry.