The labels will be added to all products that do not meet Mars’ own nutrition criteria, which includes brands such as Uncle Ben’s, Seeds of Change, Dolmio, Miracoli and Masterfoods.
A limited number of ‘occasional’ labelled products that contain higher levels of salt, sugar and fat – such as pestos and lasagnes from the Dolmio and Miracoli range – would not be reformulated due to their “authentic recipes”.
A list of occasional products will be available on the company's website in the next few months, and the labelling will be rolled out "within the next year".
Fiona Dawson, global president of Mars Food told FoodNavigator: “We are determining the actual wording, and how we could incorporate usage of icons, so that it is easy to understand across markets and identifiable by consumers."
The labels will be accompanied by a reformulation programme to cut salt, sugar and fat levels with the aim of eventually turning these products into foods that can be eaten every day.
The global food giant has set itself the target of cutting sodium by an average of 20% by 2021, and reducing sugar in some sauces and light meals by 2018.
“The goal is to bring the majority of our global product portfolio in line with these nutrient targets (added sugar, sodium, fat, etc.) so they can be considered ‘everyday’ foods. Those we are unable to get to the target levels will be labeled ‘occasional',” said Dawson.
The new label and reformulation programme would be applicable in all of its markets and Dawson said most markets would see at least a few products labelled ‘occasional’, meaning they should be eaten once a week.
However, it would only apply to main meal products – or “when proper nutrition is most important,” and not confectionery brands which, it says, have been undergoing their own journey to cut sugar, fat and limit marketing to children for some years now.
Half of its rice products will also include either wholegrains and legumes. All of its tomato-based jar products will also include a minimum of one serving of vegetables.
Despite encouraging consumers to limit consumption of some key products to once a week, Mars said it did not expect to see a fall in sales.
The UK was Mars' biggest market for cooking sauces in 2015, followed by Australia and France, and Dolmio was the biggest brand according to Euromonitor data.
Yet according to the market research company, Mars may be looking to divest from the cooking sauce category anyway.
A recent global report on Mars Inc said: "Cooking sauces, whilst mature, will add another $115 million (€102m) in the UK between 2015 and 2020. However, the brand has lost market share over the last five years, as private label goods begin to win over consumers.
"Mars’ presence in pasta sauces does not fit particularly well with the rest of its portfolio. Given the relatively low growth rates, the company may consider exiting the category to concentrate on snacks."
Greater strides or piecemeal efforts?
In any case, Malcolm Clarke of the Sustain Alliance for better food and farming said he was pleased to see Mars recognising manufacturers need to make greater strides with reformulation and nutrition labelling.
However, asked whether voluntary approaches such as this would really have a significant impact, he said: "A ‘treatwise’ symbol and message has been added onto confectionery for over a decade without much effect on consumer behaviour, so we will have to see whether adding ‘everyday’ or ‘occasional use’ makes any difference on sauces and other cooking products.
“The danger is that it will just further confuse shoppers. Better would have been for Mars Food to have made a categorical statement in support of the colour-coded front-of-pack nutrition labelling system and encourage other manufacturers to put it on all of their products."
Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the UK's Centre for Food Policy, said it was "an interesting move" and questioned the motives behind it. "But whatever the motive, it’s a sign that the market is moving – an early sign that pushing over-consumption no longer has to be the only business model in town.“
Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine and chairman of Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) and Action on Sugar said: “Whilst we welcome the Mars initiative, it is not nearly enough. It is unambitious and what we want is what the British Retail Consortium is calling for, which is mandated targets for reformulation for sugar, salt and fat.
“This is the only way we will see sufficient reduction in calorie intake. Industry firing off on random reductions with bits and pieces is not going to get us anywhere."
Mars says it hopes its programme will spur other industry players into action.
“We believe our health and well-being ambition can help lead the industry to adopt more stringent nutrient targets, which will quicken the pace at which consumers’ palates adjust to less sodium, sugar and fat, helping us to achieve healthy, balanced diets around the world,” said Dawson.