Tuesday July 05, 2022

Seeds of hope

October 17, 2020

The Covid-19 crisis is creating multiple shocks – disrupting livelihoods, food and health systems, social protection – all of which undermine nutrition. Many of the world’s most vulnerable families have had to increase their reliance on staples like rice, wheat and maize that are energy rich but nutrient poor. Even before the pandemic, more than one-quarter of the world’s population could not afford a healthy diet that is rich in the nutrients needed to survive, thrive, and fight off infectious diseases. The pandemic threatens to deepen hidden hunger, negatively impacting child growth and development and human potential that will far outlast the Covid-19 crisis.

Take rice for example. Today, rice is the staple food for half of the world’s population. The minute but mighty grain is a rich source of energy. In developing countries it supplies up to 70 percent of the calories people consume every day.

However, like other staples such as wheat and maize, it lacks vitamins and minerals that are essential to health and wellbeing. Fortifying the foods that people are already eating with the vitamins and minerals that they need to stay healthy is an efficient, cost-effective way to improve nutrition, especially during a pandemic.

Staple food fortification reaches vulnerable families where they are, strengthening the nutritional value of commodities like rice, maize, wheat flour, salt and cooking oil by adding vitamins and minerals during processing.

Although there is no silver bullet to solve the crisis of global malnutrition, food fortification can significantly improve nutrition across populations and generations, from unborn babies to the elderly. Food fortification has been utilised successfully around the world for over a century.

Salt iodisation is practiced in 160 countries – improving cognitive ability in infants and young children and reducing goitre, an indicator of iodine deficiency which causes significant swelling of the thyroid gland, by 74 percent. Fortifying staple foods with folic acid can prevent devastating birth defects even before an expectant mother knows that she is pregnant. Foods fortified with vitamin A fight against preventable blindness in children. Foods fortified with iron lower maternal mortality rates and ward off anaemia – a micronutrient deficiency that afflicts close to half the female population in many low and middle-income countries (LMICs). Fortification with zinc strengthens immune systems, decreases childhood diarrhoea and pneumonia and helps prevent childhood stunting.

By addressing malnutrition, food fortification supports healthy diets that improve the daily lives and futures of vulnerable populations, making children more alert and ready to learn and improving the health, energy, and productivity of their parents.

But the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains and economies around the world has put national fortification programmes at risk in LMICs.

Excerpted from: ‘Preventing ‘hidden hunger’ in the time of pandemic’