SEATTLE, Washington — In many developing countries, hunger poses a significant threat to the health and well-being of people living in poverty. Many poor populations have access to a limited variety of foods and are unable to consume enough micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals needed to maintain general health and development. Malnutrition caused by micronutrient deficiency can be as dangerous as overall food insecurity. To combat this issue, governments and organizations have food fortification initiatives in place to add essential micronutrients to commonly consumed foods.
How food fortification works
Food fortification is the process of adding extra nutrients to staple foods, such as flour, rice, salt and oil. This is done to increase the amount of micronutrients available to people who would not ordinarily be able to access a varied and nutrient-rich diet. On a larger scale, these programs help to alleviate widespread nutrient deficiencies within a country or region.
Fortification can be implemented in multiple ways depending on the needs of the impacted area. For example, the governments and NGOs that plan food fortification programs can choose to utilize three techniques:
- Mass fortification: the addition of micronutrients to widely consumed staple foods
- Universal fortification: the addition of micronutrients to food products also consumed by animals and livestock
- Targeted fortification: the addition of nutrients to products consumed by specific age groups
Government legislation or a voluntary industry decision can also allow for fortification programs.
Why food fortification is important
Almost 48% of the African population consumes primarily staple food products lacking in essential micronutrients such as iodine, zinc, vitamin A, calcium and iron. Varied and nutrient-rich foods such as meat, fruit and vegetables are often inaccessible or too expensive for families living in poverty. This leads to malnourishment, especially in children who require micronutrients to grow and develop properly. For example, the “hidden hunger” caused by micronutrient deficiencies can cause brain damage, stunted growth, blindness, weakened immune systems and a higher mortality rate for young children if left untreated.
The estimated over 2 million people globally who suffer from micronutrient deficiencies are also at a higher risk of contracting or dying from infectious diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and measles.
Results of food fortification
In recent years, food fortification programs have been recognized as an important strategy for decreasing malnutrition and hidden hunger. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization have ranked food fortification as one of the four main strategies for fighting malnutrition. The Copenhagen Consensus considers food fortification to be in the top three most important international development goals. These initiatives are being used throughout Africa, where fortification of wheat flour is mandated in 26 countries, and fortification of maize flour is also required in nine of these countries.
The implementation of these programs has already begun to have a positive impact on the health of those living in poverty in Africa and around the world. An example of these benefits is the use of salt fortified with iodine, which has increased access to this micronutrient and has helped prevent 750 million cases of goiter globally in the past 25 years. However, there is still more work to be done in order to fully optimize the reach and impact of food fortification programs.
As food fortification programs continue to grow in regions struggling with poverty, this strategy will likely make a difference in decreasing the damaging effects of hidden hunger and malnutrition for many people.
– Allie Beutel