(October 16th is celebrated world over as World Food Day to promote awareness about starvation, nutrition, and food security. This story is being republished in light of this.)
Nutrition is an indispensable aspect of health and development. Healthy people are more productive and better able to contribute to the development of the economy. The global burden of malnutrition has serious and long-term impacts on the developmental, economic and social well-being of individuals, communities, and countries.
What is Micronutrient Malnutrition?
Micronutrient malnutrition, one of the forms of malnutrition, refers to inadequacies in intake of vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients enable the body to perform functions that are essential for proper growth and development, and the consequences of their absence are severe.
Iodine, vitamin A, and iron are the most important nutrients in public health terms, and their deficiencies represent a major threat to development of populations worldwide, particularly children and pregnant women in developing countries like India.
Why Are Vitamins Essential?
Vitamins A and D are essential for a number of critical functions of the body, making it imperative to address their deficiencies to improve public health.
Vitamin A plays a vital role in ensuring healthy vision, and essential for reproduction and healthy immune system. It also provides benefits of preventing urinary stones and enhancing collagen production required for healthy skin.
Similarly, vitamin D has several benefits.
Vitamin D supports the immune system, brain and nervous system and is essential to maintain healthy bones. Further, vitamin D helps in reducing the risk of type-1 diabetes, risk of flu and supports lung function and cardiovascular health.
Food Sources of Vitamin A and D
Meat is the most abundant source of vitamin A. Other sources include eggs, dairy products, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and leafy vegetables.
On the other hand, sources of vitamin D are limited and mostly present in seafood, eggs, mushrooms and milk. However, in India, a major section of the population is either vegetarian or does not include these foods in their diet.
Effects of Vitamin Deficiency
As a practicing nutritionist, I have witnessed that a major section of the Indian population is deficient in vitamins A and D.
More than half the population across all age groups consumes less than 50% of their daily needs of iron, zinc, vitamin A, folate and other B vitamins.
Furthermore, nearly 70-90% of Indians in urban and rural India, are deficient in vitamin D. This high prevalence of vitamin A and D deficiencies has resulted in widespread occurrence of resultant disorders, significantly impacting health of the population and increasing the risk of mortality, especially among young children and pregnant women.
Vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness, increase susceptibility to throat and skin infections and impair immune responses. Similarly, vitamin D deficiency can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, asthma, hypertension, cancer and depression, and causes rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.
How Can Food Fortification Prevent Malnutrition?
Strategic interventions can be adopted to address micronutrient malnutrition.
Dietary diversification involves promoting consumption of nutritious foods in one’s daily diet. However, it is influenced by limited availability and purchasing power.
Supplementation has been adopted by the government to address micronutrient deficiencies but is not a sustainable measure. Under these circumstances, food fortification is a more feasible strategy.
Food fortification refers to the process of adding micronutrients to commonly consumed foods such as wheat flour, rice, milk, oil and salt, to make them sources of vitamins and minerals. With no change in the existing food habits of the population, fortified staples can reach nearly the entire population.
Further, its benefits outweigh its cost, making it a sustainable strategy. Addressing vitamin A and D deficiencies through fortification provides a unique opportunity.
Fat soluble vitamins A and D can be fortified into edible oil, milk, margarine and ghee.
In this regard, edible oil fortification has several advantages making it a suitable carrier. Edible oil is consumed by nearly 99% households and its fortification results in a minimal increase in its cost by only 7 paisa per liter.
Fortification of edible oil does not affect its physical properties such as its taste, colour and shelf life.
It is time to recognise the benefits of food fortification, especially fortification of edible oil and its critical role in addressing vitamin A and D deficiencies.
Fortification is also not affected by socio-economic factors and does not require a change in existing food consumption habits. This increases its acceptability among the general population and is a sustainable way to ensure adequate consumption of essential vitamins and minerals.
As we work towards addressing vitamin A and D deficiencies, I urge all stakeholders from government and private sectors, to come together and scale-up efforts towards edible oil fortification.
(Shubi Husain is a celebrity nutritionist, entrepreneur, obesity expert and consultant.)
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