Unilever criticised over food nutrition claims

Unilever has been accused of offering food products that haven't been fortified to add necessary nutrients that mitigate health concerns, with a new report claiming that the companies Maizena and cornflour produce in Mexico fail to deliver on brand commitments.

Unilever criticised over food nutrition claims

Unilever claims it is engaging with Changing Markets about their research

The report, published today (17 September) by the Changing Markets Foundation, Proyecto Alimente and ContraPESO, accuses Unilever of failing to keep to global commitments on nutrition.

Specifically, the report claims that Unilever is not fortifying its Maizena Natural product in Mexico, despite commitments to do so from the company. In 2002, a law came into force requiring all wheat and maize flours available for sale in Mexico to be fortified as a means to combat malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, which are serious health concerns in the country.

Despite claims that all of Unilever’s cornflour products in Latin America are fortified, the report argues that micronutrients are only added to flavoured atole hot drink mixes. For other products, nutrient levels were found to be less than advertised on the package – zinc in cookie flavour was estimated to be 30% lower and iron 20% lower while thiamine (B1) was 73% lower in chocolate flavouring than advertised.

The Changing Markets Foundation’s Alice Delemare Tangpuori said: “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.

“Unilever must explain why its natural cornflour product is unfortified, seemingly in direct contrast to its global communications on fortification, and why the levels of iron and zinc in its atole products do not appear to match the levels stated on the packaging.”

Access to nutrition

In Mexico, one in four children under the age of five suffers from iron deficiencies such as anaemia and 90% of women do not get enough iron in their diet.

The report examined the use of Maizena, a well-known brand of cornflour that’s present in 90% of households in Mexico. Information was obtained from the Maizena Mexico website, Maizena product labels, and 84 tested samples of Maizena products.

According to Maizena’s Mexico website, Unilever confirmed in the 1990s that its cornflour products were ‘enriched with vitamins and minerals’. In fact, Unilever is currently ranked second in the 2018 Access to Nutrition Index.

In response, a Unilever spokesperson told edie: “We fully recognise the important role that we play in providing fortified food as part of helping people prepare and enjoy nutritious meals. When fortifying our products, we aim to provide at least 15% of the recommended dietary allowance per serving, based on international guidelines.

“Our approach to the fortification of our Maizena Flavors products is fully aligned to this. We are engaging with Changing Markets about their research into our Maizena products and are carrying out additional, third-party testing to ensure they comply with the ingredients and fortification levels declared on the pack. We will take immediate action if there are any discrepancies.”

Unilever generated $190m in sales for it’s fortified and functional food and beverage portfolio in 2018. The global market is expected to grow by 24% in the next five years and with climate change and population growth placing additional strains onto global access of food, the impetus is on business to provide healthy, and environmentally friendly produce.

Safe Food Advocacy Europe’s (SAFE) secretary general, Floriana Cimmarusti, said: “This study exposes the stark gap between companies’ official commitments and communication, and their actual practices on the ground.

“It’s simply unacceptable that large multinational companies still market products for which labelling information does not reflect the real content. Whether it is in Europe or in Latin America this kind of deceptive communication misleads consumers and clearly violates their right to transparent information about the products they buy.”

Matt Mace

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