Our nutrition philosophy and approach
Average read time: 18 minutes
The fundamentals that underpin our nutrition strategy and how we make decisions and work with others.
Everyone deserves access to good food
We believe in offering healthier options that are affordable and accessible to all, and we’re continuously improving the nutritional profile of our foods and refreshment products.
It’s important to us that everything we do is underpinned by leading-edge science. Our nutrition standards follow international dietary guidelines and apply to our whole portfolio – covering every country, brand and product.
We also believe it’s our duty to have clear principles to ensure we’re responsible in our marketing, labelling and communications with consumers.
And, as one of the largest food manufacturers in the world, we’re taking action to help shape a global food system that’s fair for everyone and the planet. We’re driving this through our Future Foods Positive Nutrition Action Plan. But we know we can’t transform the food system alone, so we advocate and partner with others to drive change.
We need an entire food system transformation
We aim for a food system that gives people access to quality nutrition, with plenty of plant-based choices. It should be fairly serving consumers as well as producers, and positively impacting people’s health whatever their lifestyle or budget.
We want all consumers to have access to affordable products, and to be able to make nutritious choices through clear labelling and balanced portions.
The food system should also be cutting waste and promoting sustainable, regenerative agriculture through sourcing and climate action plans, and ensuring that products are nutritious from farm to fork.
We aspire to be a force for good in food
We know that to have a healthy business, we need a healthy society. We’re making sure that our brands are part of the solution. Hellmann’s, for instance, aims to help people ‘make taste, not waste’ by tackling food waste. Knorr is ‘reinventing food for humanity’ by motivating people to change the world by changing what’s on their plate, alongside its focus on sustainable sourcing. The Vegetarian Butcher wants to ‘sacrifice nothing’, and Horlicks aims to ‘nourish a billion lives’, while Wall’s heart-shaped logo (and company) stands for bringing happiness to the whole community, with consciously produced ice cream that's good for people and the planet.
Through our brands, our vision is to be a world-class force for good in food – but what does this mean in practice?
It means helping people to make healthier choices, while still offering foods and refreshment that they can enjoy without compromising on taste. We can’t tell people what to eat, but we can provide more low calorie and high nutrition content products to make it easier for people to have healthy diets.
Our nutrition improvement journey began over 20 years ago when we published our Nutrition Policy, followed by our Nutrition Enhancement Programme. We reviewed all our products worldwide to assess their salt, sugar and saturated fat content and defined actions for improvements. This led to us setting time-bound targets in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, and by the end of 2020, we had doubled the size of our portfolio of products that meet our Highest Nutritional Standards (HNS).
Our Strategy and goals explains how we’re now going even further with our Future Foods strategy. And we’re proud that our steps so far towards being a world-class force for good in food have been recognised with our rankings by ATNI, FAIRR and the World Benchmarking Alliance.
Healthy options for a healthy diet
We’re ensuring our products are made responsibly – with a focus on taste and the planet, and of course good nutrition underpins our approach.
Future Foods is our plan to help people transition towards healthier diets and reduce the environmental impact of the food chain.
Through Future Foods, we are continuously improving our entire portfolio. We do this based on science and delivering it through our brands with purpose as well as partnerships.
Our innovation approach
To help fix our broken food system, serve consumers and grow our business sustainably at the same time, innovation is crucial. Our teams draw on insights from consumers, plus the best and brightest thinking from specialists inside and outside Unilever, to develop food and refreshment products that enable people to choose healthier diets for themselves and the planet.
Cutting-edge research to develop even better products
Hive, Unilever’s Foods Innovation Centre in the Netherlands, is shaking things up in the kitchen. And our Colworth centre in the UK is our global Refreshment R&D HQ. They’re just two of our six R&D centres worldwide.
The Hive and Colworth are where we develop foods and refreshment that taste good, feel good and are a force for good.
Science-based strategy and innovation
Our Future Foods strategy and our approach to innovation are based on the latest scientific understanding of the role of nutrition for good health and wellbeing.
We use this science to develop great-tasting products that meet the nutritional needs of our consumers and that deliver their health and wellbeing needs. We also use science to underpin all our nutrition commitments, claims and communications, and to help ensure that external guidelines, regulations and policies are based on the best science.
We seek to work with others and invite people to share knowledge and best practice through our innovate with us portal.
From topics like plant-based foods, sustainable nutrition and the gut microbiome, to mental wellbeing, life stages, behaviour change and precision nutrition, we stay on top of the latest scientific evidence. We share our findings through peer-reviewed publications (PDF 382KB) and presentations at scientific conferences.
Take our Unilever Nutrition Standards as an example
Science and dietary guidance underpin our Unilever Nutrition Standards and we have two standards which guide our portfolio improvement. The first is our Highest Nutritional Standards (HNS), which are intended to limit nutrients of concern in our products. The second is our Positive Nutrition Standards (PNS) which aim to increase dietary recommended nutrients and ingredients that consumers should eat more of, for their and the planet’s health.
We’ve based both standards on WHO dietary guidelines and road-tested them with guidance from external experts in nutrient profiling to ensure they’re robust.
Our standards tackle three key elements.
Nutrients of concern
Nutrients that should be limited in people’s diets to promote health
- Saturated and trans fats
Ingredients that should be eaten more regularly for the health of people and the planet as they help to diversify diets
- Fruits and vegetables (plant-based ingredients)
- Dairy (only for kids’ products)
Nutrients that should be eaten more regularly for the health of people and the planet as they help to diversify diets
- Omega 3 fatty acids
We’ve explained more about the science underpinning our nutrition standards in our new booklet.
Science also underpins our claims, marketing and labelling
We’re careful to ensure we can fully support any claims we make. We first introduced our Unilever Nutrition and Health Claims Framework in 2005, providing guidance for nutrition and health claims on our products. Today, this framework ensures a solid scientific and legal basis for our claims, ensuring they are credible, compelling, differentiating and comply with regulatory requirements.
Our Claims Substantiation Committee provides governance, ensuring that the nutrition and health claims we make are underpinned by sound science. We use our Highest Nutritional Standards as guidance for nutrition and health claims and, if local regulations or voluntary industry standards are stricter than our Unilever Standards for nutrients of concern, we follow the stricter standard for any claims. Our global position on claims explains more.
We’re also committed to promoting healthy diets by marketing and advertising our nutritious products responsibly. We’re guided by our General Marketing Principles, our Principles on Responsible Food & Beverage Marketing to Children, and for ice cream such as our Mini Milk and Twister, our Responsibly Made for Kids promise. Advertising and Marketing details our approach.
Our nutrition labelling (PDF 100KB) policy covers our entire Foods & Refreshment portfolio, which means we apply it in all countries (even if those countries have no labelling regulations). It stipulates that we must provide key information on pack and adhere to regulations. Currently, 99.7% of our sales volume provides nutritional information that’s in line with our policy. We also take exceptional care to include accurate allergen information that complies with local regulations.
We support the implementation of front-of-pack labels.
Our view on front-of-pack nutrition labels
We believe front-of-pack labelling schemes must be based on product group-specific benchmarks, or on serving sizes, rather than a generic calculation per 100g/ml.
Product group benchmarks consider the role in the diet, so they take into account the frequency of consumption and serving size. And a servings-based approach is based on what people consume. Both are better aligned with dietary guidelines.
In our view, any front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme should:
- help consumers make the healthier food choice
- stimulate the foods industry to reformulate towards healthier products
- be based on evidence.
Strong governance = high standards
To make sure we maintain our high standards, and that everything we do is based on leading-edge scientific evidence, it’s essential that we have a strong system of governance in place. Governance in nutrition (PDF 225KB) sets out how we do this.
Strong governance structures and clear lines of accountability ensure we deliver our Future Foods commitments. When we consider acquiring new brands, such as Horlicks for example, we look at the fit of the portfolio against our nutrition standards.
We also draw on insights from external experts to challenge our thinking. For example, we asked external experts for their opinions on the next iteration of our new Highest Nutritional Standards which we plan to launch when our current HNS commitment expires at the end of 2022. We continue to set product-specific standards, taking into account the role of the product, and we’re pleased that these were well received as they incentivise further reformulation. The experts also complimented us on our leadership in product improvement.
A worldwide commitment
All our standards, positions, policies and commitments are applicable globally – for every brand, every category and every region, unless a local regulation is stricter. That means whenever you buy a Unilever product, anywhere in the world, you can be sure it was formulated in line with our strict policies and standards. Our nutrition standards, positions, policies, commitments, claims framework and marketing are all scrutinised and authorised by our senior leadership via our governance groups.
They are put into action by Unilever Nutrition Network, UNN, who are our nutrition experts at local, regional, and at a global level. The UNN works in cross-functional teams to do this, and we have robust processes in place that guide our activity in the areas of innovation, product renovation, roadmaps, programmes and activation campaigns.
In addition, we set annual individual and collective targets for our people, with bonuses depending on reaching these commitments.
We’re working in partnership
To make a difference to the multifaceted problems the food system faces – not least changing people’s eating habits – we need to work together with governments, health authorities, academia, retailers, civil society, consumer pressure groups and the media.
This means working in partnership with others, and advocating for improvements to be made, backed by science.
We’re encouraging others to join us
We work with others to create a positive external environment within which we can grow responsibly and deliver our ambitions. So that it gives us the freedom to operate, to help shape the future, and to be proactive in sharing our nutrition story and inspiring others in our industry to join us. Some of the key areas are explained in our advocacy and policy asks below.
To encourage people to eat more plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, for instance, which is better for the health of people and the planet, we’re advocating plant-based, food diversification and food that’s better for the planet to be included in international dietary guidance.
To help deliver positive nutrition, we want to create an enabling environment where people can inform themselves about the benefits of plant-based products and fortified foods in consumer-friendly language.
And to ensure less salt, sugar and saturated fats are consumed, we want reformulation targets to be aligned with WHO guidelines, with incentives to create smaller portions.
More plant-based options
Our Compass goal sets out to reach €1 billion annual sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025–2027.
Our Compass goal seeks to double the number of products sold that deliver positive nutrition by 2025.
Reducing calories, salt and sugar
Through our Compass goals, we’re continuing to lower calories, salt and sugar across all our products.
Championing regulatory change
To make a difference, sometimes we need to champion regulatory change. Take fortification as an example. It’s not just about making fortified products. It’s also important we address consumer barriers, ensure labelling transparency and encourage the removal of any regulatory hurdles.
For instance, most authorities now widely recommend iodised salt instead of conventional salt to help prevent iodine insufficiencies. Many countries have also regulated the levels of iodine in salt, as well as the type of salt. However, this isn’t harmonised across the world.
In the US, we’ve asked the authorities to approve potassium iodate as iodised salt, the most accepted mineral source of iodine globally. We’re also calling for harmonised legislation and regulations across the world. These should clearly indicate that all salt used in the manufacture of processed foods should be iodised, preferably with the same level of iodine and type of iodised salt.
We advocate the importance of iodised salt during presentations at key scientific conferences, like the Asian Congress of Nutrition (PDF 523KB), supporting the WHO’s call for action on iodised salt in processed foods. We’re also working in Europe with NGOs and trade associations to remove regulatory hurdles.
Challenging 'schnitzel gate' in the European Parliament
As part of the EU Common Agricultural Policy reform, amendments were proposed to the legislation that would make labels like 'steak', 'sausage', 'schnitzel' and 'burger' only allowed for animal-based products. The thinking behind this was that if vegetarian alternatives could use these labels, consumers might buy them by mistake.
We thought that was a mistake because we need to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods that are good for people and the planet. So we teamed up with a broad coalition of NGOs, consumer organisations and plant-based food companies to challenge the restrictive amendments. The Vegetarian Butcher launched an Instagram #vegetarianmeatisnotboughtbymisteak campaign, and the amendments were rejected by a large majority in the European Parliament.
The food system transformation has begun
We want to see the global food system transformed. So we’re working with partners to develop science-based targets, technical solutions and advocating for policy change at a national and global level. For example, Unilever was a principal partner of the COP26 Climate Summit in 2021. Our food brands Hellmann’s, The Vegetarian Butcher and Knorr were all there, calling for a huge step-up in climate action. Or, as The Vegetarian Butcher would say, #Climeat Action, with The Elephant in the Room campaign raising awareness of the huge impact of meat consumption on our planet.
In November 2020, we co-hosted the pre-summit Bold Actions for Food as a Force for Good. Leaders from all five UN Summit action tracks attended, as well as thousands of participants from over 300 organisations in almost every country in the world.
We partnered to help make the UN Food System Summit 2021 a success by seconding resources to the World Economic Forum (WEF) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). We participated in the summit where we engaged with other leaders to help steer and join a number of important coalitions for action:
- We pledged €30 million towards the GAIN-led Zero Hunger Pledge behind high-impact programmes such as agricultural interventions to support sustainable practices that are economically viable for farmers and in water-scarce regions.
- We have led the design of the Innovation Hubs and galvanised the involvement of countries and more than 20 private and public sector organisations. Hubs have been launched in Europe, Latin America, Africa, India and Vietnam. As part of the Africa Hub, we launched a new partnership with Farm to Market Alliance to scale Future 50 Foods in Africa with smallholder farmers.
- We co-led the creation of the Innovation Policy document, released by the UN. Our proposal for countries to allocate 1% of their food systems budget (GDP) to innovation, research and development was widely shared and supported by various stakeholders including the Science Committee’s publication in Nature.
We continue our commitment to nutrition and submitted six commitments to the Nutrition for Growth summit in December 2021. These include a continued reduction of calories, salt and sugar in products, delivering more positive nutrition and plant-based offerings, helping people to eat more nutritious meals, responsible marketing and workforce nutrition.
Bringing the Future 50 Foods to Africa
Africa faces unacceptably high levels of hunger and malnutrition. So, to help create a more sustainable, affordable and nutritious food system across the continent, we’ve joined forces with the Farm to Market Alliance.
Together, we’re exploring ways for African smallholders to grow – and consumers to enjoy – Knorr’s Future 50 Foods.
Finger millet in Kenya is our first project. This grows in conditions where better-known crops – such as maize, wheat and rice – don’t do as well. Finger millet is a good source of fibre, vitamin B1 and essential minerals to support people’s health.
We’re doing this as part of the World Economic Forum’s multi-stakeholder Food Innovation Hubs initiative, and it was launched around the United Nations’ Forum on Sustainability Standards.
We’re inviting more partners to join our efforts across the value chain to make a real difference.
Playing our part in change
We believe in global partnerships, as well as local and regional ones, to bring about change on the scale that’s needed.
We’re joining forces globally with others
Our President of Foods & Refreshment, Hanneke Faber, is a board member of WBCSD’s Food & Nature work programme. We’re also active through projects like FReSH, which aims to accelerate food system transformation. We co-lead its Positive Nutrition and Plant Forward workstreams, and are represented on the FReSH leadership team.
We partner with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Over 2020–23, for instance, we will be involved in its Seeds of Prosperity partnerships in India, Kenya and Malawi, increasing access to nutritious food for 300,000 tea workers and their families – 1.5 million people in total.
Playing a leading role in industry-wide, self-regulating initiatives that encourage nutritious diets is also important to us. Our President of Foods & Refreshment is a Board member of FoodDrinkEurope (FDE). We’re also active in the International Food & Beverage Alliance (IFBA), Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), Private Sector Mechanism (PSM) of the FAO Committee for Food Security, Sustainable Food Policy Alliance (SFPA) in North America and Food Industry Asia (FIA).
Engaging with stakeholders explains more about our external engagement, including the trade associations to which we belong.