Specialist health and nutritional foods are set to become more important in the food market, according to Nestle executive vice president and head of the Europe, Middle East and North Africa zone, Luis Cantarell. In particular, Cantarell says developing food to meet the nutritional requirements of the ageing population is a key priority for the world’s largest food group. 

“This is an emerging area. We are the first company in the nutrition and food space that’s thinking and investing money in food for the ageing,” Cantarell tells just-food in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of an event to celebrate Nestle’s 150th anniversary in Brussels.

“We set up Nestle’s health science division in 2011 selling products through hospitals, doctors and social services. With this group, we are pioneering the development of a new industry between traditional nutrition and pharma, founded upon science-based, personalised nutritional solutions for people with specific dietary needs. Our focus is not just on acute medical conditions, but also on tackling increasingly prevalent chronic diseases associated with immense human and financial costs,” he explains.

“This next generation of nutrition is a new area between food and pharma,” Cantarell continues.

This marriage of food and pharma would seem to have been confirmed this week, when the company appointed a new CEO in the form of Ulf Mark Schneider, currently the chief executive of Germany-based healthcare company Fresenius. Schneider will join Nestle in September. He has served as CEO at Fresenius since 2003 and as the firm’s CFO since 2001. Prior to joining the firm, Schneider was group finance director for Gehe UK, a pharmaceutical wholesale and retail distributor. This pure-play healthcare background has been taken by many commentators as a sign of things to come at Nestle.

It is clear that Nestle is already making strides in this direction. The company is currently researching how genetic and other individual factors define how nutrition can help. “We are working on it, but there is scientific evidence that nutrition can slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” Cantarell reveals. The next new development is likely to be foods to help ease the symptoms of autism, the executive adds.

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For all the potential offered by these breakthroughs, Cantarell expresses frustration that “the current regulatory framework is not yet prepared to support these developments.”

Nevertheless, the European Union’s health claims system has been helpful in promoting trust in such products, he continues, noting that the 2006 list of authorised marketing statements “helps consumers make properly informed food choices, provides legal certainty for claims and helps to protect our investment in research and development.”

Cantarell further welcomed the goal of the current Dutch EU presidency, which ends on 30 June, of developing an EU-wide nutrition policy to motivate industry to invest in healthier products in the light of the growing obesity problem. Nestle itself is soon to announce new nutrition and health commitments, the regional chief reveals. 

“We want to be part of the solution if it’s to do with food fortification, sugar reduction or personalised nutrition for people with diseases,” Cantarell says. He is proud that by the end of 2015, Nestle had removed 8,600 tonnes of sugar, 260 tonnes of sodium and 440 tonnes of saturated fat from its food and drinks. But while Nestle has been proactive in its reformulation efforts, with up to 30% of the EU population being obese, the company “alone cannot do enough”. 

Cantarell continues: “We have to tackle these issues together as an industry and regulators could also play a more active role here.”

Speaking at evening press meeting, Cantarell insists that health concerns are more important than profits: “People like sugar and if you add more sugar to a product people will prefer it so buy more, but that’s not how we operate. We’ve identified internal nutritional criteria to which all products need to comply to.”

Cantarell says that Nestle’s R&D work aims to keep it “one step ahead”, just as founder German-born Swiss pharmacist Henri Nestlé did in 1867 when inventing the infant nutrition product farine lactée, or flour with milk. “In the context of a leading company in nutrition, health and wellness, we aim to be the most innovative business,” Cantarell tells just-food.

Nestle, with its 330,000 employees, 436 factories and, in Europe alone, EUR25.2bn in sales, is the world’s largest food and drink producer, and is gunning to be the most competitive manufacturer. “Selling one billion products a day, we are always looking to get the most percentage value from our products,” Cantarell says. 

Admitting the global financial crisis has “made us more streamlined,” he emphasises that competitiveness should not be confused with price: “The current trend of food deflation is not sustainable,” he insists. 

Cantarell, who joined the global food giant 40 years ago, says his duty as head of zone Europe, Middle East and North Africa is to “successfully drive Nestle policy, products and brands in these territories, just as my predecessors have done”.

Cantarell believes this development will come as the result of a cooperative and collaborative approach to doing business.  “We want to be the most inclusive company, involving everyone when it comes to our products, our impact on populations, governments, brands, employees, the environment and society. I believe in that.”

For further detailed discussion of Nestle’s business model – and how the group is placed to weather economic storms such as Brexit and Russian trade sanctions – check out part one of the just-food interview with Cantarell

just-food is publishing a report on the opportunity that healthier products present food makers. How Brands Are Making Food Healthier will be available in the just-food research store from August. However, people who take out an annual subscription to just-food before 31 July 2016, at a discounted price, will receive free copies of both How Brands Are Making Our Food Healthier and another recent report, Drivers of Food Industry M&A, by Stefan Kirk, principal at M&A Advisor Glenboden and just-food columnist. To take advantage of this offer click here.