"You cannot look at it in an isolated way but it is clearly a factor," says Pierin Menzli, research analyst at the SAM group, an asset management company specialising in sustainability investments that compiles the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI).
This year, for the first time, R&D in health and nutrition was included as one of about 20 criteria used by SAM to assess the sustainability of food companies for the index. It is among the three criteria with the highest weighting.
Unilever came out at the top of the rankings, which are made up of the top 10 per cent of the Dow Jones World Index's 2500 biggest firms.
In its report on the company, the DJSI notes: "Driven by changing consumer patterns, the company has initiated a nutrition enhancement programme in 2004 in order to screen the current food and beverage portfolio and to further develop the range of healthy food options."
Others that reached the top 10 per cent include Danone, Nestle, Cadbury, Asahi Breweries, Heineken, Diageo, Danisco and SABMiller.
The companies gained points in a variety of general criteria such as corporate governance, environmental and social reporting, and human capital development.
But around 40 per cent of the overall score is made up of industry specific criteria that also include raw material sourcing, management of GMOs, strategy for emerging markets and brand management.
Menzli told NutraIngredients.com that health foods has only emerged as a sustainability factor in recent years.
"We're talking about an underdeveloped area but there is going to be much more emphasis in coming years," he said.
"At a corporate strategy level, you didn't see the kind of examples of healthy innovation included in Unilever or Nestle's reports three years ago," he added.
Although difficult to define 'healthy foods', the analysts look for concrete examples of innovation in this area.
"Printing it in the annual report is not enough. We want to see evidence of R&D spend in product development and reformulated products with less fat and sugar," Menzli explained.
"We also look at work with NGOs on promotion of dietary guidelines for example, as well as development of labeling systems."
The DJSI claims to influence the investment decisions of asset managers in 14 countries that have licensed the index as a benchmark.
Releasing the results for a range of different sectors this week, the organisation said that sustainability indicators are also increasingly linked to financial value drivers.