Ingredients for a meal, including meatballs, rapeseed oil, greens, chickpeas and a lemon.

Maria on changing our ways of looking at nutrition

Almost all of us eat the food served at a restaurant or a simple thing as a bar of chocolate without much thought. So, at IKEA, we want to ensure the food we serve is not just tasty, it's also healthy and nutritious. For this, Maria Wirén, Nutrition and Health Leader at IKEA, has developed a nutrition profiling system for IKEA that evaluates food products for their contribution to a healthy diet. We sat down with Maria to know how the system would work. 

Some of Maria's fondest memories are connected with food. A plate of traditional Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberries often sends her back to her mom's warm and hearty kitchen. Four years ago, just a few days after she joined IKEA, she was asked about her eating habits. She said she loved a good hamburger without giving it much thought, adding that she had just had one for lunch. 

"They looked at me like - are you really a nutritionist or do we have the wrong person", reminisces Maria with a smile. 

“I love food. I believe food is our friend. My mission in my role at IKEA is to help shape a more positive and inclusive attitude to nutrition and health.”

Portrait of a woman in a dress.

Maria Wirén, Nutrition and Health Leader at IKEA.

When you love what you do, it's not work anymore, or so they say. The saying seems appropriate for Maria, whose love for food easily gets into her work life. In fact, it makes it easier. 

"My work is really to try to uncomplicate and de-demonize nutrition for people. A lot of people have complicated relationships with food and think that some foods are good, and some are bad. My vision as a dietitian by training is to help people make peace with food and think about what food gives them rather than fearing how it can harm them", says Maria. 

This idea to uncomplicate nutrition led Maria to start working on the nutrition profiling system at IKEA two years ago. The system is now being implemented for the entire IKEA food range, including meals, snacks, drinks, and packaged products. 

The new nutrition profiling system

The nutrition profiling system that Maria has developed is essentially a blueprint that will ensure all the food products developed meet the requirements for nutrition quality, thereby contributing to a healthy diet. In simple words, it's guidance towards creating healthier, more nutritious foods in IKEA.

So, how will it work? 

For evaluating a food product, it will be allocated to one of the 32 product groups. These product groups range from beverages to plain noodles and pasta. According to the system, an IKEA food product will be classified as green, yellow or red, where green has the highest nutritional quality (best in class) and red, the lowest, based on the content of total sugars, saturated fat, sodium, fibre, and energy. 

"We started this system as we wanted to be more clear and organized around our position on nutrition and health. If you're a global player in the food industry, you need to ensure that you deliver products that are good for people. And to do that, you need a system that guides you there", says Maria.

"The IKEA Food range contains a wide variety of food products - meals and snacks, drinks and bread, fish and meat, and plant-based options. So, we needed a system that could capture all of this and would also be applicable on a global scale. It was hard, and it took some time to wrap my head around what would be the best system to apply", says Maria.

A woman cooking plant balls in a frying pan.

Nutrition profiling systems are complex and hence a bit uncommon, except for a few large food companies. It was even more complex for IKEA as it needed a unique multi-level nutrition profiling system to guide product portfolio development step by step.  

And then there were other practical issues. One of the biggest challenges was to define the thresholds and cut off criteria. How could one decide the threshold for ingredients like sugar - three grams or four grams per 100 grams in a food product?

"Ensuring that there's a scientific rationale to the decision that we're making was important in this work. It can't be what I feel like or what I decide; it needs to be science-based and grounded to explain to both our customers and partners. And sometimes there wasn't any information to base the decisions on", says Maria.

According to Maria, it was fairly straightforward to establish the "healthiest" level, but the middle ground level was far more ambiguous. It took quite a bit of work, loads of discussions and review of both established science and benchmarking of other companies' ambitions to land at a level she felt good about.

And then help came through the criterion developed by the Choices International Foundation that is scientifically grounded and globally applicable. The IKEA Food Nutrition Profiling system now rests on the basic principles of the Choices criteria framework. 

To start with, the implementation of the nutrition profiling system is in the back end, and customers will not see any changes in the packaging, presentation, and taste of their IKEA food. The mission for IKEA and Maria is to enable healthy eating for more people. The new food products currently in development will be evaluated through this profiling system, and in the future, it will also apply to a reformulation of the running range.

Food for life

For Maria, food is uncomplicated. It's a source of energy and joy. She defines healthy eating as allowing everything without unnecessary exclusion or restrictions while factoring in the balance and quality of the food. 

To be sure, she is hooked to labneh with mint these days. And, she also has a weak spot for Italian food. 

How do you define healthy food and nutrition?

"At IKEA, we classify a food as healthy if it positively contributes to a balanced diet that helps individuals meet their needs, in line with dietary practice recommendations. In general, healthy options include foods with a balanced energy content and contain less sugar, salt, saturated fat and more fibre." 

"Furthermore, we classify food as nutritious if it provides an adequate amount of high-quality nutrients that support general wellbeing and health."

Is it true that the definition of healthy food changes all the time?

“I think that a customer’s idea of what's healthier, what's nutritious and the changes in the perceptions of these two often come from the bombardment of information to customers from a food environment that is trying to convince them that one particular food is healthier than another."

"Nutrition science is a dynamic field and some things we still don't know, but the key bits of knowledge on how to plan a healthy diet is there and hasn't changed a lot over a long time, in the same way, that our bodies stay the same, but our environments change, and that's where we can make the biggest impact."

Facts about Maria

From: Gävle, Living in Malmö.
Reading: “Jag kan ha fel”, written by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad
Watching: “Succession” on HBO
2021-22  work goals: Defining and communicating our position on nutrition and health in a tangible way at IKEA
2021-22  personal goal: Get better at playing padel