Editorial: Fortification of traditional foods to mitigate hidden hunger

In the second of this new series of IUFoST editorial columns, Charles Aworh, IAFoST President, looks at several key food processing needs for sustainable and healthy traditional foods in the African continent.

The vast array of diverse nutritious food products available in different parts of the world today is made possible by developments in food processing technologies. However, food and nutrition security remains one of the major challenges of the 21st century especially in developing countries where technological development is lagging behind. This is partly due to the capacity to preserve food. Apart from low agricultural productivity (crop yield per hectare and output per unit animal), high post-harvest food losses due to handling practices, inadequate food processing facilities and weak supply chain contribute to food and nutrition insecurity in developing countries. Regrettably, advances in food processing and preservation have not been advanced in the developing countries to impact food availability, stability, safety and nutrition as in the developed world.

Micronutrient and other deficiencies (the hidden hunger), especially vitamin A, iron, iodine and zinc deficiencies, are still widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) with adverse consequences on productivity, mental development as well as maternal and infant health. While food processing may result in the loss of some specific essential nutrients, it is very important and necessary in order to ensure a more stable product and to meet consumer preferences for products with better sensory properties. This is well reflected in flour milling as well as in blanching and heat processing to ensure food safety. The need to minimize nutrient losses in heat processed foods has led to the use of new food processing techniques such as high pressure processing, pulsed electric fields, and ultrasound, among others, as well as hurdle technology that involves the synergistic application of a combination of food processing and preservation techniques that are designed to produce minimally processed, high quality foods with good nutrient retention. Food processing through the deactivation of antinutrients in food, microbial nutrient synthesis in food fermentations, and food fortification would actually enhance the nutritional quality of foods. Indeed, food processing not only ensures safe and nutritious foods for an active and healthy life, but actually saves lives.

Food fortification generally refers to the addition of one or more essential nutrient to a food for the purpose of preventing or correcting demonstrated nutrient deficiency in a population or a specific group. In practice, the term is used for the industrial addition of micronutrients such as vitamins A, D, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, as well as iron and zinc to processed foods. Iodization of salt has been carried out since the early 20th century (100 years ago) for the control of goiter. Other terminologies associated with the addition of nutrients to foods include restoration, enrichment and supplementation. 

Mandatory food fortification (industrial addition of certain nutrients to processed foods) has been introduced in parts of SSA including Nigeria. However, compliance has been mainly by the large food multinationals whose products like wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oils and margarine are fortified with the prescribed vitamins and minerals, but their impact is felt greatest in the urban areas. Non-compliance by small-scale food industries in many instances has limited the impact of food fortification programmes especially where regulatory agencies lack the will or the capacity for enforcement. Small-scale food companies that involve low capital investment and rely on local raw materials and simple, low-cost, traditional food processing techniques play important roles in rural development and agro-industrialization and are crucial to reducing post-harvest food losses and increasing food availability and accessibility. They reduce inequalities between urban and rural areas and by generating employment opportunities in the rural areas, they also reduce rural-urban migration and the associated social problems.   

A wide variety of traditional foods of plant and animal origin enrich African traditional diets and contribute to food and nutrition security. African traditional foods and food processing techniques, dating back to centuries, are part of the rich cultural heritage of the people. However, several factors including poor product quality, unhygienic processing conditions, limited capacity, lack of standardization and the drudgery associated with traditional food processing techniques limit the impact of traditional foods on the economy and wellbeing of the people. Recognizing the importance of traditional foods in food and nutrition security, IUFoST in the 2010 Cape Town Declaration of the 15th World Congress of Food Science and Technology in South Africa called for “adaptation and improvement of traditional foods and processes, while respecting the traditional, ethical, cultural and religious aspects involved.” 

Upgrading the quality of traditional foods that are still largely prepared in the home and the unregulated informal food sector and promoting small-scale food processing are crucial to sustainable food security in SSA. Even though not easy to implement given the very nature of traditional foods and the challenges faced by small-scale food industries including technology, energy, finance and management, there is the need for workable strategies for specific nutrient fortification of traditional foods produced by small-scale food industries to mitigate hidden hunger in SSA and LMICs in general. Such interventions must be holistic to achieve the desired results and should include health improvement strategies given the high burden of a myriad of food-borne illnesses.    

All rights are reserved for IUFoST.  However, this column is available for reproduction, dissemination for the purposes of improving scientific knowledge around the safety, security of the world’s food supply with acknowledgement of source and author (IUFoST News Brief March 2023, Professor Charles Aworh, www.iufost.org