On June 5th, which was World Environment Day, Unilever released there sustainable nutrition manifesto. Is this a good thing? Is this a move from a company who wants to help the world, or just make a quick profit? Let’s take a look.
Unilever Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto
Firstly, to access the official Unilever webpage and the eight page manifesto that they released in pdf form, you can follow the links at the bottom of this page.
When I first saw this I had mixed emotions. At first I thought it was good that a major company was taking sustainable nutrition seriously, but then I wondered if this was just a large company wanting to appear to be doing the right thing but really using it as a way to make more profits. What was going on? I had to look into it in a bit more detail.
What are Unilever’s main messages?
Some of Unilever’s statements in the manifesto that struck me the most are these;
- the global food system is broken
- the food system cannot continue as it is
- for the vast majority of human history, people lived in rural communities shaped by the natural environment
- with the rise of sprawling mega cities comes obesity and its related health problems
- …around one seventh of all greenhouse gas emissions now comes from meat production alone. This cannot continue.
- consumers in industrialised countries throw out the equivalent amount of food per year as sub-Saharan Africa’s entire annual harvest
- farmers and producers need to become more effcient and adopt sustainable practices
- consumers need to be given more choice so that sustainable food and beverages become the norm
- being a progressive food company involves helping to ensure that such ingredients are widely available, affordable and grown sustainably
- agriculture, food, nutrition, health, livelihoods, and the environment are all intimately interconnected
- the cost of inaction to business is far greater than the cost of action
- A sustainable food system has to be the answer. And now has to be the time.
And some concerning statements;
- technology is playing a big role in changing the food value chain for the better
- we fortify some of our foods to increase their nutritional content
Overall, Unilever seem to be saying the right things and starting off number of interesting initiatives in the area of sustainable nutrition. However, before making a judgment on the Unilever Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto, I’d like to have a look at the types of food that Unilever provides to the world.
Unilever Food Products
Here are a couple of Unilever’s food brands and products that I’d like to comment on.
This brand is most well known for its Mayonnaise, which they say is just egg yolk, oil and water. When I read that, I have to wonder if it should really be called food. Anyway, the actual ingredients of Hellman’s mayonnaise are as follows;
- Rapeseed oil (78%), water, free range pasteurised egg and egg yolk (8.9%), spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, lemon juice, antioxidant (calcium disodium EDTA), flavouring, paprika extract.
You know, Unilever don’t make it that easy to find the ingredients of Hellman’s mayonnaise and it’s no wonder – who would want to eat something that was 78% Rapeseed oil? As you may be aware, I don’t like Rapeseed oil (see Rapeseed invasion and monocultures and Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils – A Reminder) and I also don’t like the EDTA used as an antioxidant (see It’s worth studying the label).
So, I wouldn’t really call this “food” as there’s very little nutritional value in it. Unilever can’t have sustainable nutrition if there’s no nutrition. Even if it was made sustainably, it wouldn’t help much. If the whole world began eating mayonnaise as a key part of their diets, then the population wouldn’t be sustained for very long. Add to that the constant stream of plastic making up many of Hellman’s options and I’m struggling to see sustainability here.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter
Another well-know brand of Unilever’s is “I can’t believe it’s not butter” which is describe on their “Our Story” page as;
A beautifully simple philosophy
We use real, simple ingredients to make an unbelievably delicious spread that’s good for you too. Sometimes, this means that we need to change the way we source our ingredients to give you the taste you love and the value you expect. So, we will no longer be sourcing non-GMO ingredients at this time.
The good news is that GMO ingredients are safe for us to eat. And studies show that these ingredients have the same nutrients as their traditional counterparts. So, you still get the nutritional benefits you count on. It kinda makes you hungry, doesn’t it? Breakfast anyone?
I have no idea what they are saying here. They say they will be “no longer sourcing non-GMO ingredients” – does that mean they will be sourcing GMO ingredients and only GMO ingredients? That’s crazy. On the very next line they say “the good news is that GMO ingredients are safe for us to eat”. What!? Is this the same company that has a Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto?
What’s more, when I click on a link called “What’s in my spread?” on this “Our Story” page, I get a “404 page not found error”. How ironic! Is somebody trying to keep the details from us?
Eventually I found the ingredients on this page – http://www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk/product/i-can-t-believe-it-s-not-butter-2kg-1-EN-10096.html ,
Vegetable oils in varying proportions (59%) (rapeseed, palm, sunflower), water, buttermilk (4%), salt (1.5%), emulsifiers (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, sunflower lecithin), citric acid, preservative (potassium sorbate), flavouring, colour (carotenes), vitamin A and D.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter – 59% vegetable fat spread with buttermilk. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is a product made for the professional kitchen. It is suitable for spreading, shallow frying, baking and freezing. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is made with buttermilk for a delicious buttery taste and contains less than half of the saturates of butter and no trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats.
Now I’m confused again. On their “Our Story” page, they had this graphic;
Why do they say, here in the graphic, “no partially hydrogenated oils” ? Why the word partially? In the text quoted above the graphic they say “no trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats”. This is a bit confusing and I’m not sure what they are really trying to say. I doubt that their Rapeseed oil has not been hydrogenated. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.
Again, I can’t see much nutritional value at all in this “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” product. It’s all about achieving a certain taste rather than nutrition. Is this sustainable nutrition?
Regarding the ingredients, apart from being 59% oil of potentially different types (whichever is cheapest, I’m sure) and about 30% water, I’m worried about things like potassium sorbate. A quick search shows that many people are worried about the toxicity of potassium sorbate. Here are a couple of quotes from the wikipedia page on potassium sorbate;
Potassium sorbate is used to inhibit molds and yeasts in many foods
Although some research implies that potassium sorbate has a long-term safety record, in vitro studies have shown that it is both genotoxic and mutagenic to human blood cells. Potassium sorbate is found to be toxic to human DNA in peripheral blood lymphocytes, hence it negatively affects immunity. It is often used with ascorbic acid and iron salts, as they increase its effectiveness, but this tends to form mutagenic compounds that damage DNA molecules. Regardless, three studies have not found it to have any carcinogenic effects in rats.
Wow. And we wonder why auto-immune diseases are on the rise when nearly all of our “food” contains stuff like this. Note that the text above says potassium sorbate “negatively affects immunity”.
I could go on and investigate other Unilever food products, but there’s not really much point.
What conclusion to make about Unilever?
I think Unilever is a company that means well and is trying to make a difference. Essentially though, they are part of the huge food processing industry where profits are made by taking ingredients from Nature (probably the cheapest versions of these available), processing them in a factory to make them into something else, something apparently unique, adding preservatives and other chemicals so they don’t go off for a long time, packaging them in really eye-catching packets and boxes and then convincing us that we all really want to buy these things. Unilever are trying to improve the system but their livelihood depends on the system staying the way it is. Pretty hard to do.
Rather than be critical of Unilever, I’d like to congratulate them for the moves they are beginning to make and encourage them to keep going and go much further.
In the end, do we really need large food companies? Isn’t Nature the biggest food company there is?
Food is just food. Food just is. Pick an apple. Pick some lettuce. Pick some tomatoes. We don’t need large food processing companies to provide food. Nature does that.
Unilever is making some moves towards sustainable nutrition and that’s excellent. The food companies that can reinforce sustainability will be more and more successful as the ones that don’t will be shunned by the consumers. True sustainability comes from embracing Nature and not from fighting it and trying to control it. This is the big step for large food companies. Can they start embracing Nature and achieving true sustainability in this sector?
Related Links – Unilever Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto
- Announcement page on the Unilever website – Reconnecting with nature to build better food systems
- To download the pdf version (5.4 Mb) of the Unilever Sustainable Nutrition Manifesto [click here]