Daily Bread: Are tortillas and breads in Mexico adequately fortified?

May 2019 Report
Daily Bread: graphic of baker making tortillas

Executive summary

Poor-quality diets not only contribute to the rise of obesity and non-communicable diseases but also lead to micronutrient deficiencies – a lack of vitamins and minerals that are essential for health. Micronutrient deficiencies remain a significant problem in Mexico, where, in recent years, nine out of ten women do not get enough iron in their diet, a quarter of adult men do not get enough zinc and anaemia rates appear to have increased among all age groups. This can have serious consequences: If nutritional anaemia is not identified and resolved before a child reaches two years old, the damage to health becomes irreversible.

Food fortification is an important and effective tool in the fight against micronutrient deficiencies. For this reason, Mexican law already requires wheat and nixtamalized maize flour to be fortified with iron, zinc, folic acid and other B vitamins. The current standards have been in place for a decade. Building on our previous investigation, which showed that only 7% of packaged flours available at retail level in Mexico are adequately fortified, this report goes further to look at whether food processors are buying and using wholesale flour fortified according to the Mexican standard. It represents the first independent testing, and comparison with the flour-fortification standards, of the nutritional content of industrially produced tortillas and breads in Mexico.

Our findings reveal that the legal requirements for fortification of flours are not translating into adequate fortification of breads and tortillas. Only 14% of bread products (6 out of 43) and 1.5% of tortilla products (1 out of 69) clearly met the minimum iron and zinc levels mandated in the flour-fortification regulation. It also appears that barely any of these products contain the recommended type of iron. This is concerning, given that tortillas and bread are both staple foods in Mexico, with per-capita consumption at 57kg and 34kg per year respectively.1 These results show that companies cannot be trusted by themselves to procure adequately fortified flour for use in making flour-rich products, nor to guarantee nutritious foods for the population.

This report shines a spotlight on multi-billion-dollar companies with significant experience in food processing, such as Grupo Bimbo, the bakery giant, and Gruma, a world leader in tortilla manufacturing. We tested 11 bread products (86 samples) and 12 tortilla products (89 samples) from Grupo Bimbo, covering the brands Bimbo, Oroweat, Wonder, Sanissimo, Tia Rosa, Del Hogar and Milpa Real. Only one bread and one tortilla product from Grupo Bimbo contained quantities of both iron and zinc that clearly met the flourfortification standard. We tested seven products (45 samples) made by Gruma (which produces the Mission brand of tortillas), none of which contained levels of iron or zinc that clearly met the flour-fortification standard. The quantities of iron and zinc in Gruma tortillas were also notably lower than in products from most other companies; indeed, several products had such low levels that it raises the question whether the flour used was fortified at all.

It is not only flour millers that have a moral responsibility for tackling micronutrient deficiencies; food manufacturers also play a critical role in delivering micronutrients through adequately fortified products. As such, these companies should have robust systems in place to procure and use adequately fortified flour. There is no good reason for corporate giants to sidestep their responsibility, and no excuse for their failure to procure flours fortified to the legal standards.

This report presents a further opportunity for the new government in Mexico to update the fortification regulations to cover breads and tortillas, thus closing the regulatory loophole. The new administration should take corrective measure to address the failings of the food industry and uphold the law, which was established to guarantee that people in Mexico get essential nutrients through staple foods.

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