Sharing Food Technology to Improve Nutrition
Half of the world's people, most of them poor and living in developing countries, have diets that are inadequate in protein, calories and/or micronutrients. Up to one-fifth of deaths and disabilities worldwide are attributed to malnutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies--the hidden hunger that can damage health even when diets are adequate in calories--have increasingly become a focus for concern in the international aid community. Approximately one-third of the world's population is affected by deficiencies in Vitamin A, iron and iodine. Lack of adequate folic acid is also a significant concern, especially during pregnancy. Clinical manifestations of these and other micronutrient deficiencies include birth defects, blindness, mental retardation, anemia and even death. Even those who are marginally deficient in micronutrients are unable to reach their full potential as parents, workers and citizens. The cycle of poverty thus continues.
One way to break this cycle is by effectively applying food science and technology to nutritional problems and challenges. Better, safer, and more nutritious products can be made available to at-risk populations through food science/technology applications such as micronutrient fortification of widely consumed foods; fortification and other nutritional enhancements of food aid commodities; and direct technical support to industries with the potential to improve the safety and nutritive quality of their products.
Micronutrient fortification of food staples and food aid commodities can be a relatively cost-effective means of helping to alleviate regional dietary deficiencies of one or more vitamins and minerals critical to good health and development. Adequate consumption of fortified food has been shown to improve micronutrient status in individuals. Correcting micronutrient deficiencies can boost immunological integrity, reduce maternal deaths, decrease infant and childhood mortality, strengthen cognitive development in children and boost adult work capacity. Well-nourished mothers are more likely to give birth to well-nourished children who grow and learn better, ultimately earn more, and are less likely to suffer from childhood diseases and diet-related chronic disease in midlife.
If made universal through a commonly consumed product, food fortification can bring these benefits to whole populations and help to break the cycle of poverty. Direct technical assistance and training to indigenous food industries in food fortification, as well as in basic food processing, quality control, packaging and marketing, can strengthen these businesses' institutional capacity to deliver quality products on a sustainable basis. Building the institutional capacity of these indigenous businesses can, in turn, have positive ripple effects with respect to community and regional development.
Effective nutrition interventions can sustain themselves when they are integrated with industrial processes and the food market system.
Innovations in Iron Fortification Technologies
Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional disorder in the world, and a particular concern for women and children. SUSTAIN's food-technology based initiative to help address this challenge focuses in part on identifying optimal iron fortificants for corn masa flour, a relatively new and increasingly popular product used to make tortillas in Latin America. We are working with governments and industry to optimize bioavailability, cost-effectiveness and consumer acceptance of this and other fortified products. We are also evaluating the potential for innovative ingredient technologies to enhance iron absorption in cereal-based diets, a topic featured at our international "Iron Enhancer's Workshop" (March 2003, Washington, DC).
Evaluating the Efficacy of Elemental Iron Fortificants
Elemental iron powders are the most commonly used food fortificants worldwide. However, past research on the bioavailability of these powders has yielded highly variable results (from 5% to 145% relative bioavailability), hindering implementation of food enrichment programs worldwide. SUSTAIN is working to clarify the situation by rigorously evaluating the bioavailability of all elemental iron powders now in use as food fortificants. After completing a series of screening studies we selected several powders for evaluation in clinical studies of mildly iron-deficient volunteers. Based on the results of this research SUSTAIN will issue guidelines on the recommended use of elemental iron fortificants in food fortification programs. This project has had the additional benefit of encouraging metal powder companies to explore ways to improve the nutritional performance of their products.
Food Aid Quality Enhancement Project
In 1997 the U.S. government commissioned SUSTAIN to assess the micronutrient quality of the blended food commodities offered through its Food For Peace program. SUSTAIN documented that commodities left many production sites with low and inconsistent levels of micronutrients and that gaps existed in quality control procedures. In some cases cooking was seen to further reduce micronutrients to negligible levels. In a follow-up 2001 Compliance Review, SUSTAIN found that some improvements had been made at the manufacturing level. During this period the USDA was also working to introduce a new Total Quality Systems Audit (TQSA) program to strengthen quality performance. Despite these advancements, SUSTAIN and the governing agencies agree that questions remain about commodity quality and about the readiness of the TQSA program. Also at issue is the relative lack of innovation in the array of commodities available through the program.
To address these issues, SUSTAIN is launching a new project initiative in 2004 to enhance nutrient delivery to U.S. food aid recipients through better production quality control and by adjusting formulations based on proven food technologies. SUSTAIN will work collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a set of parameters and procedures to ensure on-going innovation, cost-effectiveness and quality improvement of food aid commodities.
Volunteer-Based Project Initiatives
SUSTAIN volunteers, representing U.S. food companies, universities and scientific and professional associations have shared their knowledge and expertise with requesting food industries and organizations in developing countries worldwide. They have conducted technical assessments of food industries and provided hands-on assistance to solve specific food technology challenges and to improve the quality and nutritive profile of food products. Volunteers have also led country-based training workshops and short courses in such areas as dairy technology, fruit and vegetable processing, post-harvest storage and processing, small business development and marketing strategies for traditional and organic products. Our most popular workshops have focused on plant sanitation, good manufacturing practices, and quality control (including HACCP assessment), issues critical to the provision of safe and nutritious foods.