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Many products by the largest food firms are considered unhealthy, research shows

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two new reports paint a dismal picture of nutrition in the U.S. One says about 70% of products sold by the largest food companies, including Kraft, Heinz and Kellogg, are considered unhealthy. And that's the food that stocks a lot of U.S. grocery shelves. And new Gallup data shows just how much Americans' diets are lacking. It's not a new problem. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, what is new is the momentum for change.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When you walk into a grocery store this time of year, are there certain displays that are hard to miss?

ANNA HERFORTH: Of course - all the Halloween candy.

AUBREY: That's Anna Herforth of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research with Gallup provides a new snapshot of Americans' eating habits. It shows just how many or how few consume the variety of different recommended food groups.

HERFORTH: What we find is it's about 28% of Americans are eating any amount of all of the food groups recommended in the U.S. dietary guidelines.

AUBREY: Even fewer eat the recommended amounts of things like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For decades now, as diet-related diseases, including obesity and diabetes, have increased, Americans have been told to eat better. The problem is there's a big mismatch between the foods we're told we should eat and the foods that are most abundant and affordable on store shelves.

HERFORTH: There's been a long tradition of, you know, putting personal responsibility on individuals to choose a healthy diet. And that's really difficult when you're sort of fighting against the food environment.

AUBREY: It's not just Halloween candy. Researchers at the Access to Nutrition Initiative analyzed about 11,000 products from leading food companies, including Kellogg, General Mills, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and Nestle. They found about 70% failed to meet a healthy threshold.

The group's executive director, Greg Garrett, says many companies have pledged to make changes, but so far, he sees little progress.

GREG GARRETT: This is disappointing. This is a disappointing finding after four years of engaging with these food companies that the overall product portfolios haven't changed, that they're not healthier than they were.

AUBREY: Many of the companies included in the new report push back. Kraft Heinz, for instance, points to a 40% reduction in sugar in its Capri Sun drinks, which are popular with kids. But critics say incremental changes are not enough, not at a time when diet-related diseases are a top cause of death. So to step up the pressure, Greg Garrett and his team want to leverage investors' power to nudge companies to sell healthier foods.

GARRETT: We've been working to build a coalition of investors - these are institutional investors - who believe strongly that we need to see change at the highest level.

AUBREY: The pandemic shined a spotlight on the impact of diet-related disease. People with diabetes and heart disease were more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID. Now with increased awareness, Garrett says more investors are interested and putting their money into companies that strive to do better.

GARRETT: We're going to work with our 80 or so investor signatories over the coming years, we hope, to see the chief executives of these companies in the boardrooms enact change.

AUBREY: It is easier said than done. But one investor, Lauren Compere, managing director with an impact investing firm called Boston Common Asset Management, says investors can push for a range of strategies - for instance, linking executives' compensation to the launch and sales of healthy products or nudging companies to prioritize marketing of healthy options.

LAUREN COMPERE: You have to look at kind of all those pressure points. And we want to see sort of momentum of companies leaning in to healthier products.

AUBREY: She points to one recent example with Unilever, a U.K.-based company that owns several ice cream brands, including Ben and Jerry's. A coalition of shareholder activists filed a resolution urging more transparency around the foods Unilever sells. Instead of the company using its own definitions of healthy, Unilever has now agreed to publish independent assessments. The company also announced new targets earlier this year to increase the proportion of healthier foods it sells.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.