A report published in January this year by Changing Markets Foundation, Just Economics, SumOfUs, and the Mexican non-profits Proyecto Alimente and ContraPESO alleged that the cereal manufacturer has been stealthily reducing the levels of added vitamins and minerals in some of its best-selling products: Choco Krispies, Corn Flakes, Corn Flakes Special Edition, Special K, and Zucaritas (Frosties).
They alleged that between 2013 and 2018, the level of folic acid in Zucaritas was reduced by 70%, for instance, while iron levels in Corn Flakes were halved. Calcium was removed entirely from both of these popular cereals.
In a follow-up report, published last week, the coalition of non-profit organizations estimated this defortification has saved Kellogg US$85 million – but will cost Mexico $250 million over five years through its societal impact, such as health-related problems.
According to the Mexican national health survey, one in four children under five suffer from anemia due to iron deficiency and one-quarter do not get enough folic acid and vitamin A through their diet, while half do not get enough iron and calcium.
To estimate Kellogg’s cost-savings, the researchers first calculated the volume of micronutrients it has avoided using in its products annually and used contacts in the food-fortification industry to estimate the price it would have paid for these ingredients.
The cereal manufacturer told the non-profits that its decision was informed by data and science but has provided no details of the research. The civil society organizations are calling on Kellogg to make public this data and to immediately re-fortify the cereals.
Cereal sales are on the rise globally, rising from US$23.2 billion in 2013 to reach $24.6 billion in 2018. Latin America and Asia are fueling this growth. In Brazil, for instance, breakfast cereal consumption grew in Brazil by around 9% in the five years leading up to 2003, according to a 2010 study by C. A. Monteiro et al.
Mexican policymakers, meanwhile, should introduce robust standards for breakfast cereal fortification, and ensure manufacturers are rigorously monitored – even if this is currently done on a voluntary basis, the NGOs said.
Kris Bahner, Kellogg Company spokesperson, said in response to the report: "In recent years, we have begun to update our fortification profiles around the world to ensure that we are purposeful and deliver against consumers’ wants and needs.
"In Mexico, we identified key shortfall nutrients through the assessment of national nutrition surveys - ie ENSANUT, 2012 – to determine how breakfast cereals might play a key role in improving intakes for children and adults. All of the cereals made for Mexican consumers are voluntarily fortified with key shortfall nutrients that were identified through the national nutrition surveys for this market, including iron, vitamin D and folic acid. We then consider technical feasibility, local regulations and consumer needs to create a fortification bundle, which in this market also includes B complex vitamins.”
Small change, big impact
The investigation looked only at Kellogg’s cereals in Mexico, not other countries.
However, given the country’s large population and the fact it has been identified by Kellogg’s as an area for growth, the report shows how small changes in fortification can have a big impact on people, said Alice Delamare, senior campaigns adviser at Changing Markets.
“Our findings likely represent the tip of the iceberg for other food companies like Kellogg’s that are under pressure to reduce their costs,” she told FoodNavigator-LATAM. “If Kellogg’s has flown under the radar for five years whilst undermining the health of Mexican citizens, how many other markets and how many other brands might be doing the same?”
Fortifying cereals can also be important to replace some of the nutrients that occur naturally in grains but that are largely lost in the process of preparing them for consumption in ready-to-eat cereals.
One 2018 study, which received financial support from Kellogg and DowAgroSciences, found that the process of making corn flakes removes the healthy phenolic compounds and tocopherols from corn. The study’s scientists concluded that fortification with additives was the best solution to make corn flakes and other corn products healthier.