Stopping Micronutrient Deficiencies: Q&A with GAIN’s Rebecca Spohrer on Food Fortification

Micronutrient deficiency is one of the most common public health problems in developing countries. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies account for about 10% of the global health burden with the most prominent ones including iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc and folic acid.

Because many people do not have access to naturally occurring nutrients, food fortification can offer numerous benefits that can improve the health of individuals suffering from malnutrition.

As part of a Google+ Hangout Series for the Nutrients for All Campaign, Marzena Zukowska, Media Manager at Ashoka Changemakers, sat down with Rebecca Spohrer, an Associate for Large-scale Food Fortification at The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to learn about the ins and outs of food fortification. If you missed the Google+ Hangout discussion, check out the full video on YouTube and the Q&A below:

Q: What is food fortification?

Rebecca Spohrer: Essentially it is adding tiny amounts of key vitamins and minerals to staple foods that people consume on daily basis, because micronutrients are often missing in diets of the poor due to cost and lack of availability. This is a complementary strategy to improve micronutrient intake– not a magic bullet to end malnutrition. There are of course naturally occurring micronutrients in a perfectly diversified diet, but this is not feasible in most settings and geographic regions today.

Q: What about overcoming challenges to adequate fortification?

Rebecca Spohrer: Innovation is needed to help overcome safety, technology, and cost barriers. More affordable and user-friendly quality-testing tools and scale-appropriate fortification equipment are needed for industries and governments.  GAIN has invested in piloting some of these innovations, such as devices that can be used in a field setting that can do spot testing analysis on micronutrient content. I recently came back from Indonesia where small-scale salt producers mentioned they needed support in order to add iodine adequately, which is a challenge in many countries. Communication, trust, and partnership is needed between the public and private sectors.

Q: How about collaborations to help the fortification industry?

Rebecca Spohrer: GAIN’s mission is about fostering partnerships. Nutrition solutions require sanitation, agriculture, behavior, culture – there is no way to solve the problem in silos. Linking agriculture and nutrition is a very new space. Oftentimes in government, you have a Minister of Health and a Minister of Industry – they need to be linked. Every program that GAIN is involved in has to create a national fortification alliance.

Q: Do you think we need incentives for the key players?

Rebecca Spohrer: I think incentives need to be created, but also we need to also eliminate disincentives. For example a company that wants to fortify might be required to pay a value-added tax for premix. The government could help make it more affordable for a company to fortify their foods by removing that added tax. Industry can also be rewarded for their efforts. The way the system works now is that higher yields are rewarded in the market, not nutritional content. Industry awards for best practices and quality measures could therefore foster healthy competition. GAIN is working to educate mothers to breastfeed and select more nutritious foods in the market. Sometimes it’s just an issue of awareness. Consumers need to be aware of nutrition and demand it to incentivize industry, especially where fortification of staple foods is voluntary. Better education is a necessity.

As the conversation highlights, the food industry, consumers, scientists, educators, and innovators play an important role in making “Nutrients for All” a reality. Stay tuned for a follow-up piece by Rebecca Spohrer that debunks some of the myths around food fortification.

Don’t forget to follow @changemakers and #nutrients4all on Twitter and find us on Facebook for the latest updates on Nutrients for All.

Editor’s Note: The article was originally published on the Next Billion Health Care blog.

Are you working on innovations within food fortification? The Nutrients for All competition is now open for entries! Your idea could win up to $45,000 in unrestricted funding and may be eligible to win one of several special-focus prizes totaling $10,000 from Aberdare Ventures. The deadline to enter is June 19, 2013.

Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Collection via Compfight cc "Felicienne Soton is part of a women's group that produces gari (cassawa flour)"