What exactly is your job at Danone Research?
My job is to create competitive advantage for Danone, its subsidiaries and its brands through the reinforcement of several strategic directions. Our first objective is to make Danone more and more relevant in regards the public health issues.
In each of “our” countries, we work to be aware of the main nutritional concerns and to develop relevant products and solutions.
Our second objective is to build coherence in what Danone is doing around nutrition between the divisions and subsidiaries and over time. Thirdly, we want to create differentiation between Danone and its competitors: through the nutritional superiority of the products but also through the way we partner and co-develop relevant solutions with local and scientific authorities. Since what we do is closely linked to public health issues, we want to be seen as a potential ally in addressing certain concerns, and not the one creating the problem.
How does this work fit into Danone’s strategy?
Danone’s goal is “to bring health through food to as many people as possible”. Today, this goal is highlighted by a public health context that is getting more and more worrying: what we call non-communicable diseases (obesity, diabetes, etc.) are spreading in the developing world, where nutritional habits have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. We aim to be seen as a company that is aware of these issues, and hence that can be a part of the solution and not of the problem.
How do you work day to day?
Our job is about interface and interaction, both outside the company – through scientific partnerships, which I will explain later – and inside the company – through collaboration with a lot of the local and global departments (R&D, regulatory, marketing, health affairs). The nutrition team also works intimately with the Nutrition Masters who are the people dealing with nutrition in the different divisions (fresh dairy, water, baby nutrition, medical nutrition) and in the different countries.
Let’s go a bit deeper into your activity. What are your main roles and how do you achieve your goals?
We have three main roles. The first is to understand the nutritional habits everywhere around the world, to help each subsidiary develop products that are relevant locally, and also to help them demonstrate the role our food categories can play on dietary balance and health.
For instance, in collaboration with Tufts University we have showed that children eating yogurt regularly are more likely to reach their recommended calcium intake, even more than those eating other types of dairy products.
Another example is the “Petit Gervais” brand which has a different recipe depending on the country, and the deficiencies and needs of the population. To achieve that, we have built a unique database called NutriPl@net to map the intelligence we have on almost 40 countries. But we do not stop at knowing what populations need: we also try to strengthen our knowledge of what they like and how they relate to diet culturally. The tool we use for that, which we developed with the CIRAD (Centre of agronomic research for development), is called FoodStyle. Three years ago, we led a pilot project in Algeria and are now developing other projects in Indonesia and India. In France also we use the FoodStyle to understand how low income populations eat and their relation to food. In the future, we aim to go a bit further by providing ready-made analysis tools to our subsidiaries, so that they can integrate these dimensions and the knowledge in their product innovation process.
What is your second role?
We measure the impact of our products or services on the diet quality and on the nutritional status of consumers. To do this, we need to be able to measure precisely what people eat and drink, and also to identify sub-groups of the population with specific dietary habits. For example, a very precise fluid intake method is now used by the water division to understand what and how much people drink in the different countries; this is the foundation for new recommendations regarding water intake.
We also worked alongside the US team to further understand dietary habits and patterns in the US 45+ population, showing that we can identify very distinct groups having specific dietary and health status.
And this is also key to understand dietary habits and food pattern in children or elderly people.
We also develop programmes, such as Health@Work which are running for Danone’s employees for over 6 years. In Palaiseau for instance, in the research centre, we provide staff with physical activity courses, services that make life in the workplace easier, and information and coaching on their diets. We have built the evaluation of the program with the help of INSERM (French national institute for research on health and medicine). This initiative has raised the interest of the public health authorities, and they have interviewed us to inspire the new charter for the “Entreprises Actives PNNS” (to come soon).
How do you see the future regarding this particular field of your work?
In the future, we will develop new tools for example with INRA (National institute of agronomic research) and Agro Paris Tech (Paris institute of technology for life, food and environmental sciences) to refine our measurements. We are also working more and more on what we call “nutrieconomy”: our actions can have a positive impact on the quality of the diet and on the nutritional status and thus on health and public health costs. In the future, we will have to be able to demonstrate this scientifically.
And finally, your third “job”?
It is to reveal the superiority of our products and our product ranges in terms of nutrition composition.
Thanks to the NutriProgress tool, each year we monitor 90% of our products to check their evolution in terms of nutrients to limit (fat, sugar and salt), and nutrients to favour (calcium, protein, iron, essential fatty acids, etc.).
It helps us visualize where we are compared to our own guidelines and more important in comparison with our competitors. But I have to say that, since we are already offering healthy products on which we already run some renovation programs, our objective is not to make spectacular reductions in the proportions of fat, sugar and salt they contain but rather to demonstrate that they are likely to help balance the diet compared to other products or categories. For that for example we work with the INRA to simulate the proportion of our product ranges in the average diet in France. The idea is to come up with recommendations that will help people to adopt healthier diets without completely disrupting their eating habits. In this case, we show that people have to increase their intake of certain products (vegetables, fruit, yoghurts). This work shows the legitimacy and importance of our product range in a balanced diet.
I am sure you already have future projects for this aspect of your work as well?
Yes. We are currently setting up a new scientifically robust method to precisely define and compare to the competition, and to be able to quantify our contribution to the improvement of the consumer’s diet.
There is also a lot of work to conduct on the links between nutrition and pleasure: pleasure is key to a better diet, and we must understand how it works.
For that, we have set up a partnership with Agro Paris Tech, through the creation of a chair called ANCA (“Aliment, nutrition et comportements alimentaires” : Food, nutrition and dietary behaviours).
You mentioned a lot of leads for the future of your team’s role. To conclude, what would you say is the overall most important next step?
To make our work known outside of Danone and to demonstrate with scientific research the impact of our actions and products on diet and health. Because our job is not only about Danone, it is about the way people take care of their health through food.