Debunking the Myths behind Food Fortification: A multi-strategy approach to creating a “Nutrients for All” world
Over two billion people today suffer from some form of micronutrient malnutrition – a leading cause of life-threatening human development consequences such as reduced resistance to infection, delayed or impaired brain and physical development, and increased risk of maternal and child mortality.
While there are multiple interventions that contribute to preventing micronutrient deficiencies, food fortification is universally recognized as one of the most cost-effective. It has been common practice in many developed countries for nearly a century. In the United States, food fortification has contributed significantly to the virtual eradication of goiter, rickets, beriberi and pellagra
In a world with rising food prices, the majority of low-income populations simply cannot access enough micronutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to meet their dietary needs. It has been widely documented that families with reduced purchasing power substitute expensive nutritious foods with cheaper, less nutritious, but “stomach-filling” foods. This approach, practiced over a long period of time, leads to malnutrition.
The Myths of Food Fortification
Food fortification has nothing to do with genetic modification of crops nor does it inherently promote consumption of certain foods over others. The fact that it is “cheap” makes it feasible to improve nutrient intake relatively quickly and at scale. Costing only a few cents per person per year creates a cost-to-benefit ratio unlike any other development investment – approximately 30:1 for iodine and 8:1 for iron. The micronutrient compounds used to fortified foods are designed to provide vitamins and minerals in bioavailable form too – the majority of efficacy trials have shown fortified foods with iron, iodine and vitamin A to improve micronutrient status.
However, implementation (especially in developing countries) still faces challenges, including the costs of start-up, monitoring and training, and limited reach to remote populations outside mainstream market channels. Strong cooperation is needed between the public and private sectors. Therefore there is much room for improvement, innovation and expansion of food fortification as many more people could still benefit.
Building a Foundation from Food Fortification
Multiple strategies are needed to address micronutrient malnutrition, especially in the most vulnerable. Food fortification should reinforce – not replace – efforts to improve the naturally-occurring nutritional content in diets. In the long term, dietary diversification and improved supply and demand for foods that offer necessary vitamins and minerals (“full nourishment foods”) would no-doubt improve “nutrition for all.”
However today, even in industrialized countries where consumers have diverse dietary choice, micronutrient deficiencies are still widespread: for example, Europe still has a high prevalence of iodine deficiency.
Eradicating poverty and changing the food system to create access to diversified, nutrient-rich diets will not happen overnight. Making “nutrients for all” a reality will require a multi-pronged strategy of cross-sector solutions. While we work towards these goals in the future, food fortification will act as a building block to protect populations from the consequences of severe micronutrient deficiency today.
Editor’s Note: This post was cross-posted on Ashoka Changemakers’ website as part of their “Nutrients for All” movement, which encourages leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to look at nutrients as a core deliverable and to design direct nutrient interventions at each stage of the agricultural and food value chains—in ecosystems, farming, food production, and wellness. You can follow @changemakers and #nutrients4all on Twitter and find them on Facebook for the latest updates on Nutrients for All.
Also, the Nutrients for All competition is now open for entries: if you’re working on innovations within food fortification, your idea could win up to $45,000 in unrestricted funding and may be eligible to win one of several special-focus prizes totaling $10,000 from Aberdare Ventures. The deadline to enter is June 19, 2013.