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Food and sustainability

Unmasking hidden hunger in the developed world

The word hunger generally calls to mind starving children in developing countries. Unfortunately, this type of hunger is still very much a reality. However, malnutrition is much more complex. Many children who consume enough food, and even obese and overweight children, may be malnourished because they consume the wrong kind of foods—those that lack the essential vitamins and minerals required for growth and development. This “hidden hunger” can lead to irrevocable damage to the child and adversely affect communities and the economies of entire nations.




The 2016 Food Sustainability Index and hidden hunger

Surprisingly, micronutrient malnutrition is not only present in low-income countries but is far too prominent in medium- to high-income countries, too. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation, helps to shine a light on this critical issue.  The FSI is a welcome benchmarking model ranking food systems according to their sustainability. The index looks across three pillars of the food system—food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges—and applies its metrics equally to 25 low-, middle- and high-income countries. 

Hidden hunger: examples from middle- and high-income countries

In terms of undernourishment, including micronutrient deficiency, the FSI scores India and Ethiopia as the lowest-performing nations. But the index also reveals that a number of middle-income countries are experiencing micronutrient deficiencies. These include Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Turkey, which all score in the bottom eight for micronutrient deficiencies.

What’s more, even high-income countries, including some in western Europe and North America, are not exempt from hidden hunger. Iodine intake in the UK, the US and Australia has fallen in recent years, and mild iodine deficiency has reappeared. In 2011 a study published in The Lancet, for example, concluded that the UK population was mildly iodine-deficient.  In fact, the country now ranks seventh among the ten most iodine-deficient nations in the world.  

Meanwhile, in the US 85% of Americans do not consume the US Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily intake of the most important vitamins and minerals necessary for proper physical and mental development.  More than half of American children do not get enough vitamin D and E, while more than a quarter are lacking in calcium, magnesium or vitamin A.  In both the US and the UK vitamin B-12 deficiency is becoming more common, according to a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  And finally, an article published in 2014 in the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition1 suggests that this micronutrient malnutrition is costing the US alone US$157bn annually2.  

Moving forward

Hidden hunger cannot be ignored anywhere—neither in low-income nor in high-income settings. Those affected may suffer the irreversible consequences of poor brain development, reduced immune function and low work productivity. Communities will feel the knock-on effects, including reduced economic growth and a healthcare system that is unnecessarily burdened by the medical treatment of preventable, nutrition-related health problems.

In terms of making global progress to virtually eliminate micronutrient deficiencies, one simple tool—food fortification, ie, the practice of improving the food system by adding small and safe amounts of essential vitamins and minerals to regularly consumed foods and condiments—can help. While food fortification is not a stand-alone approach—dietary diversity and affordable access to nutritious foods both remain crucial in the fight against malnutrition—it can help to provide significant intakes of micronutrients for entire populations, enable schoolchildren to learn better, prepare mothers for healthy pregnancies, and contribute towards the prevention of disease. Today, pellagra, goitre, beriberi and scurvy are not heard of in much of North America, but all of these were once common there and caused by micronutrient deficiencies. Let’s not lose these gains and ensure that all people everywhere have better access to a healthy diet with the right levels of vitamins and minerals. 

Lindsay H Allen, “How common is Vitamin B-12 deficiency?”, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 89, no.2, 693S-696S, February 2009

2JT Snider et al, “Economic Burden of Community-Based Disease-Associated Malnutrition in the United States”, Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, Vol. 38, Issue 2 suppl, 2014.

(this article has been published first on the blog http://foodsustainability.eiu.com/)
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