Food Fortification: The diet solution for Africa

 

According to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, an organisation dedicated to supporting the use of food fortification and other strategies aimed at improving the health and nutrition of populations at risk, too many families around the world are not getting enough vital nutrients in their diet.

Supporting the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the United Nations public health arm, the World Health Organisation, estimates that more than two billion people lack key vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc.

This lack of vital nutrients in diet is holding back communities especially in African countries as children do not develop fully, parents cannot work, and too much money is spent on the medical treatment of nutrition-related health problems.

Helen Keller International, an organisation that combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition by establishing programs based on evidence and research in vision, health and nutrition, says due to a lack of resources and vitamin-rich foods, many developing nations are plagued with micronutrient deficiencies that lead to anemia, diarrhea, and/or blindness-related diseases.

“Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can negatively impact the health and survival of women and children.

 It has especially negative consequences on the growth and educational performance of children, and can adversely affect pregnancies.”

This means vitamin and mineral deficiencies cause premature death, disability and reduced work capacity in many parts of the world.

Because of this, Jay Naidoo, Chairperson of the Development Bank of South Africa and Chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, said micronutrient deficiency has many invisible economic effects that are widely underestimated, because they sap the energy of working-age people and hurt the learning ability of children, causing billions of dollars in lost productivity in developing countries, who can least afford it.

World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger, believes that fortification – the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient, that is vitamins and minerals in a food irrespective of whether the nutrients were originally in the food before processing or not, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply – is one of the most cost-effective approaches to addressing widespread micronutrient deficiencies in the world.

Accordingly, countries within and across the continent of Africa should consider food fortification to reverse some challenges hindering development in the region.

“The key point is that fortification is for prevention. Other approaches are valid for other aspects of health but this is the most effective prevention tool,” chipped Professor of Human Nutrition Dr Richard Hurrell.

The World Food Programme concurs: “The delivery of fortified meals or flours may be the cost-effective way of preventing malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. 

In many such situations, micronutrient fortification of food is both curative and preventive in function.”

To sustain wide-spread progress in reducing malnutrition, capacity building and systems strengthening are required in African countries to further bolster food fortification, and to prevent and control micronutrient deficiencies.

More so, continued efforts to improve the capacity of the food industry and government regulatory bodies are critical to ensure compliance and the production of safe quality foods.

This means African governments must collaborate on large-scale efforts in partnership with private sectors to fortify essential cooking ingredients such as cooking oil and wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, iron and folic acid.

Governments should also transform their commitment to improve nutrition through strong policy and program support.

In an article “Food Fortification in Africa: Progress to date and priorities moving forward”, writers Mawuli Sablah, Fred Grant and John L Fiedler urged governments to translate their commitment to improve nutrition through strong policy and program support.

They also believe the private sector has an important role in making available high quality fortified foods that consumers can access.

Clarity of policies and strategies can effectively be achieved through harmonisation of fortification standards and regulations across sub-regions.

Stakeholders in the food and technology sector therefore need to increase their efforts to coordinate critical partners, engage consumers, and mobilise political and private-sector will to fortify, and continue to have an important role to play in ensuring the effectiveness and sustainability of fortification programmes.

At the same time, new low-cost tools should also be developed to increase the ease of assessing micronutrient levels in fortified foods, and thereby improving programme monitoring and effectiveness in an ongoing and sustainable manner.

However, David Sahn, an economist specialising in the link between poverty and malnutrition at Cornell University, is of the view that Africa must first deal with pressing issues like lack of quality food for fortification to take off.

“There are certain nutrient deficiencies that can be dealt with like iodine and iron, and certainly if the delivery mechanisms are economically and institutionally viable they should be put in place.

“But fortification leaves intact the fundamental features of under-nutrition in Africa which is shortages of good quality food, and varied proteins and the whole range of nutrients.

“Until the underlying issues of poverty and deprivation are addressed, fortification is at best working at the margins of addressing important problems, but not addressing the fundamental causes of the hunger and deprivation that we are talking about,” said Sahn.

Frankly, investment in fortification of staples complements other nutrition interventions and enables the continent of Africa to continue to make tremendous achievements in her development goals. 

Therefore, through complementary public-private-civic sector initiatives to fortify staple foods, significant economic and health impacts can be achieved in Africa.

 

June 2014
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