Have you heard of ‘hidden hunger’? This is a term often used to describe micronutrient malnutrition, a kind of undernourishment that happens when the intake (and absorption) of micronutrients such as zinc, iodine and iron is too low to sustain good health and development.
Shockingly, it’s estimated that hidden hunger affects more than two billion individuals worldwide – one in three people. A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have a perilously high level of hidden hunger. And according to the Global Hunger Index, of the 3.1 million child deaths that occur annually as a result of undernutrition, an estimated 1.1 million are caused by micronutrient deficiencies.
Persistent, chronic deficiencies of iron, zinc and Vitamin A in particular present a serious primary health problem in poorer regions of the planet where there is a heavy dependence on cereal-based diets: it’s estimated that rural poor populations get 67-70 per cent of their calories from staple food crops.
In most of these cereal grains, there are inherently small concentrations of micronutrients, and resource-poor people have limited access to plant and animal foods that are more abundant in nutrients. It is this lack of diversity in diets that is partly to blame for hidden hunger all over the world.
According to this paper in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, bio fortification is one promising solution among many interventions that are needed to solve the complex problem of hidden hunger in under-developed nations where people cannot afford to supplement and diversify their diets.
What is bio fortification?
Bio fortification is a way of increasing important nutrients in crops using different methods: selective breeding, genetic engineering, or the use of fertilisers to boost the concentration of minerals in the soil (agronomic bio fortification). In essence, all these types of fortification take place before crops are harvested, and that’s how it differs from industrial fortification, where key nutrients are added to foods in the factory.
Experts consider bio fortification a cost-effective way of tackling hidden hunger, particularly in low-income rural areas, where people have limited access to existing nutritional interventions.
How Unilever’s helping people get the nutrients they need
At present, Unilever itself does not bio fortify crops. However, as one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, we wholeheartedly support the responsible use of science and technology in agriculture because of its great promise in helping meet long-term food needs more sustainably. We believe that biotechnology offers important opportunities to help us meet our Future 50 Foods commitments, both in the sustainable sourcing of ingredients and the development of innovative products.
Good food should be available to all who need it, and it’s important to Unilever that people are able to access good nutrition at a reasonable price: consumers should not have to buy premium products in order to reap the health benefits of a better diet.
To ensure wellbeing and food security, there’s a pressing need for key changes in every stage of the food production process, and by prioritising the fortification of certain food products in our own factories, Unilever is helping to ensure some of those changes take place.
We’re also working towards alleviating hidden hunger. By 2025, we plan to double the
number of products across our brand portfolio that can deliver positive nutritional value, namely foods containing impactful amounts of vegetables, fruit and proteins, and/or micronutrients such as zinc, iron, omega-3 and iodine. We add essential nutrients to affordable products that are consumed on a regular basis, by people who need them most. Over a third of our fortified products are sold in developing and emerging countries where micronutrient deficiency is most prevalent. Click here to find out more.