By Sola Ogundipe
RICE, one of the most important staple foods in Nigeria could hold the secret to ending micronutrient deficiency (hidden hunger)in the country.
Nigeria is the largest producer of rice in Africa producing about 15 million metric tonnes annually, while Nigerians consume an estimated 8-10 million metric tonnes of rice annually.
Rice has potential to become another key food vehicle on the nation’s food fortification programme like vegetable oil and maize flour.
Generally, food fortification is one of the major strategies by the World Health Organisation, WHO, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, to decrease incidence of nutrient deficiencies at the global level.
It is the practice of deliberately increasing the content of an essential micronutrient (vitamins and minerals including trace elements) in a food, so as to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply and provide a public health benefit with minimal risk to health.
In Nigeria, rice fortification has been largely underutilised and while Nigeria is one of the countries that are signitories to the mandate of food fortification to combat hidden hunger, it is not necessarily translating policy into improved nutrition.
Nigeria may therefore be missing an immense opportunity to improve the health of children and mothers, bolster communities, and boost national economies.
But there is a silver lining as Nigeria now has opportunity to protect the next generation of Nigerians from preventable and life-limiting impacts of micronutrient deficiency.
This opportunity could be by adding micronutrients to rice according to new data from the Global Fortification Data Exchange (GFDx).
The GFDx asserted that now that Nigeria is pursuing policies to produce more rice domestically, rice should be be added to the list of foods that must be fortified with additional nutrients.
Experts say this simple act of fortifying rice-could help curb the high level of hidden hunger which is the inadequate access to micronutrients that are necessary for a healthy and functional body.
According to UNICEF, “hidden hunger is a form of hunger that is not very visible and much more than an empty stomach”.
The WHO and UNICEF note that there is triple burden of malnutrition in Nigeria in the form of undernutrition, overnutrition and micronutrient deficiency. Undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency contribute to underweight, wasting and stunting.
Findings by Good Health Weekly reveal that the nutrition situation in the country has not improved much over the last decade according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS5) 2016/17.
The survey, conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in collaboration with UNICEF, shows that underweight and stunting are increasing even as wasting persists.
No region in the country recorded progress in reduction of underweight between 2011 and 2016.
Underweight moved from 25 percent to 32 percent; stunting from 34.5 percent to 43.6 percent while wasting persisted at 10.8 percent.
Currently, more under-five children are wasted, stunted and underweight than five years years ago mainly as a result of micronutrient deficiency.
According to the MICS result, 3 in 10 children under five years are acutely or chronically malnourished, while 2 in 5 children under five years are stunted and 1 in 5 children under 5 years are severely stunted.
The wasting prevalence in 14 of the 36 States in Nigeria, is classified as “serious for public health significance”.
Wasting increases risk of stunted growth, impaired cognitive development and noncommunicable diseases in adulthood. It increases the risk of child deaths from diarrhoea, pneumonia and measles. Severely wasted children are far more likely to die than their healthy counterparts.
To assist Nigeria’s move towards rice fortification, the GFDx provides information from countries that have made rice fortification mandatory.
GFDx shows that many countries have taken a critical first step to eliminate hidden hunger through the legislation of food fortification – a proven, cost-effective, sustainable, and scalable intervention to address hidden hunger by adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods.
According to the latest GFDx data, 137 of 196 countries mandate food fortification of at least one food, while 68 mandate fortification of two foods. However, in these countries, commonly fortified foods – oil, wheat, and maize flour – reach only 51 percent, 26 percent, and 4 percent, respectively, of people on average. The rest are potentially vulnerable to deficiency in critical nutrients.
“GFDx shows that countries are on board with food fortification, but they’re struggling to implement it, or at least not collecting the data on programme performance,” says Helena Pachón, Senior Nutrition Scientist at the Food Fortification Initiative.
For the first time, GFDx allows users to track and map international progress toward fortification of major food staples: specifically, oil, rice, salt, and maize and wheat flour.
“GFDx isn’t just a data tool, it’s an advocacy tool, to drive demand and political will,” says Jessica Fanzo, co-Chair of the 2018 Global Nutrition Report and Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University. “Not only does it tell us which foods are fortified and how many people those foods are reaching, it’s designed for the right audience: decision makers.
As a country leader, if you can see that a critical vitamin is reaching people in a neighboring country, but not your own? That has the potential to be highly motivating.”
The tool also promotes critical knowledge exchanges that drive progress. According to Patrizia Fracassi, Senior Nutrition Analyst and Strategy Advisor of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, “we’re relying on the GFDx to show us, for example, that a given country has been able to enact and monitor policy, or has scaled up the coverage of fortification, or has shown changes in the consumption of vitamin-rich foods. With these concrete cases we can get to work at an actionable level and encourage countries to learn from each other.”
GFDx is led by a nutrition coalition comprised of the Food Fortification Initiative, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Iodine Global Network, and Micronutrient Forum, and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.