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KitKat owner Nestlé fights off push to cut back on unhealthy products

<span>Nestlé owns food brands including KitKat, Yorkie and Quality Street.</span><span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Nestlé owns food brands including KitKat, Yorkie and Quality Street.Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Nestlé has fought off investor proposals that would have forced the world’s largest consumer goods company to cut back on high levels of salt, sugar and fats in its food and drinks.

The Swiss-headquartered multinational won the backing of 88% of shareholder votes at its annual meeting on Thursday, while 11% backed the resolution.

Nestlé had urged investors to reject the proposal, arguing a move away from “indulgent products” could harm its “strategic freedom”.

Five institutional investors with $1.68tn (£1.35tn) in assets under management, including Legal & General Investment Management, said they were concerned about the reputational risks to the company, as well as the health effects associated with an overreliance on indulgent foods.

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Related: Nestlé adds sugar to infant milk sold in poorer countries, report finds

The shareholders – led by the campaign group ShareAction – pointed to research by the University of Oxford and the youth activist charity BiteBack. The non-governmental organisation recently found that about 70% of Nestlé’s sales in the UK were of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Simon Rawson, the deputy chief executive of ShareAction, said: “While the vote we achieved today may be less than we wanted, the direction of travel is clear. Investors and consumers are recognising the importance of addressing the business risks and public health impacts of an industry that is heavily reliant on the sales of unhealthy food. They have growing expectations not only from Nestlé but from all food manufacturers.”

Nestlé, which is listed in Zurich and owns brands including KitKat and Yorkie chocolate bars and Quality Street sweets, said its own figures showed that 60% of sales, excluding pet food, came from “more nutritious or specialised nutrition products”, and only 21% of its portfolio was focused on indulgent foods.

In video message to shareholders, its chair, Paul Bulcke, said Nestlé had always been committed to helping consumers make informed choices as part of a balanced diet. “Of course, this also includes enjoying moments of indulgence, good chocolate for example, from time to time and in a responsible way,” he said.

“A small group of shareholders led by the NGO ShareAction wants us to disengage from indulgent products. This is wrong. It will restrict Nestlé’s strategic freedom and limit management’s ability to make decisions or responsible decisions. The shareholders’ proposal is not in our best interest, not for our consumers, and not for you.”

In September, Nestlé put forward a nutrition target to sell “more nutritious” products by 2030. ShareAction said it fell far short of investor expectations.

ShareAction said the nutritious sales target was simply in line with Nestlé’s overall growth forecasts and made no commitment on the sale of unhealthy products, which could increase at a similar rate. As a result, it would not shift Nestlé’s reliance on sales of unhealthy products. The target also includes products such as coffee that have no nutritional value, it added.