Unilever vows to work with third party to test the nutrient levels in Mexican products after report highlights shortcomings

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / ddsign_stock
© Getty Images / ddsign_stock

Related tags: Fortification

A trio of organizations calls out food production giant, Unilever, for failing to achieve key nutrition promises on fortification in Mexico, its announces in its joint report.

We speak with Alice Delemare Tangpuori from Changing Markets Foundation to look at what impact this has on consumer confidence and transparency in the food industry. 

The Changing Markets Foundation, Proyecto Alimente and ContraPESO teamed up to explore Unilever’s commitment to, and deliverance of, its global nutritional responsibility.

Their research, which culminated in the trio’s Changing Markets report​, found that the global leader in food production is failing to keep to its worldwide promises, despite its position as second in the 2018 Access to Nutrition Index.

The Access to Nutrition Index 2018 recognizes the industry’s nutrition commitment and highlights companies’ claims to fortify sought-after and affordable foodstuff in countries that suffer from prevalent levels of malnutrition.

Micronutrient deficiencies in Mexico

Mexico experiences prevalent levels of micronutrient deficiencies. It is a “serious and dangerous”​ health concern in the Latin American country, Alice Delemare Tangpuori from Changing Markets Foundation reveals. One in four children under five suffers from the iron deficiency, anemia, and nine out of ten women do not get enough iron in their diets. 

With Mexico facing such detrimental and high levels of deficiency, the report used recognizable corn flour brand, Maizena, which the company states is available in 90% of Mexican households, to delve into the nutritional content of Unilever’s products.

“As a huge global food company, Unilever has a reputation for taking action to address global nutritional challenges, so we wanted to put some of their core products to the test to find out just how committed the company is to tackling malnutrition,” ​highlighted Tangpuori.

What are the report findings?

Housing the results of their findings, the Changing Markets Foundation report finds “a glaring inconsistency”​ between Unilever’s commitments and their business practices, specifically relating to fortification.

The Changing Markets Foundation, Proyecto Alimente and ContraPESO found that the consumer goods leader is not fortifying Maizena Natural corn flour product in Mexico, despite stating that it fortifies its corn flour products in Latin America. The trio also emphasizes how levels of zinc, iron and vitamins in flavored Maizena products were lower than claimed in Mexico.

“We’ve been shocked by the scale at which Unilever is failing to meet their own standards when it comes to food fortification,” ​emphasized Alice Delemare Tangpuori from the Changing Markets Foundation.

Commenting on the impact of their findings, Tangpuori explained: “The results were deeply concerning. If a company like Unilever is not managing to uphold its commitments, then this could be just the tip of the iceberg for the fortified food and beverage market.”

Nutrient levels: Fact or fiction?

The Changing Markets group found that the real nutrient levels in the flavored Maizena products were considerably lower than the level stated on the product packaging.

“Micronutrients are only added to its flavored atole hot drink mixes, but they were found to be significantly less than the level given on the package,” ​outlined Tangpuori.

In the cookie flavor variety of the cornflour food item, for example, there was 30% less zinc and 20% less iron, than communicated to consumers through its food labeling. Similarly, the nutritional content was incorrect on the Maizena chocolate flavor packaging; with analysis showing that thiamine (B1) was 73% lower than claimed.

The organizations found that none of the samples tested contained the stated levels of iron. In addition, the majority of the samples contained less than the claimed levels of zinc.

“Unilever claims to be committed to addressing micronutrient malnutrition around the world, however, this report shows that the company is failing to translate these commitments into practice,”​ expressed Tangpuori.

Sourcing transparency

Market intelligence provider, Euromonitor International revealed as part of its health and wellness research 2018 edition, Unilever Group’s global sales of its fortified and functional food and beverage portfolio was valued at slightly over $190 million in 2018. Forecast sales showed that the company’s global fortified and functional food and beverage market is set to grow by 24% over the next five years.

Unilever does not provide information on the iron source used in its Maizena products. As different iron sources have different levels of bioavailability, some are more or less easily absorbed by the human body than others, meaning they then provide more or less nutritional value.

“If Unilever uses one of the less-absorbable sources of iron, it is potentially not fortifying its atole mixes as effectively as it could,” ​confirms Tangpuori.

Unilever’s broken promise?

So why is Unilever failing to deliver on its commitment to address micronutrient malnutrition? “We can’t say whether these results indicate poor fortification practices or systematic under-fortification. What we know is the findings are extremely damaging for consumer trust,” ​highlighted Tangpuori.

“Regardless of the reasons, our report has found that Unilever is not fortifying its products to the standard that it claims to be, so it’s important that Unilever now takes action to ensure that it is not misleading its consumers.”

What needs to be done?

Unilever has responded to say that they are “planning to work with a third party to test the nutrient levels in its products, and will take action if there is any discrepancy between what is said on their packets and the reality of each product.”

Tangpuori explains that Changing Markets Foundation, Proyecto Alimente and ContraPESO are calling on Unilever to “explain why its natural cornflour product is unfortified, in direct contrast to its global communications, and why the levels of iron and zinc in its flavoured atole products do not match the levels stated on the packaging.”

Companies placed in a position of authority, credibility and consumer trust need to stand by their pledges, Tangpuori urges: “It’s not enough for food companies to make commitments, they need to show they are putting their words into practice to make sure consumers are getting the vitamins and minerals they need.”

As the report questions the “effectiveness of voluntary industry commitments that are not supported by national regulations or standards, ​Tangpuori strongly asserts that the organization will continue to “engage with and challenge Unilever, to ensure its products live up to the fortification claims made both in its global communications and on its labels.”