By Gardy Chacha
A visit to local food stores conspicuously discloses why ‘fortification’ is the new jibe for sales personnel looking to earn favour with Kenyan buyers. As the mark of authenticity, you will find products such as ‘XYZ: Fortified maize meal; XYZ Sugar with vitamin A; fortified salt or fortified vegetable oils.
Food fortification, also known as ‘enrichment’, refers to the addition of one or more vitamins or minerals to a food product. Why would food be enriched? Certified dietetics and nutrition professional Brenda Apondi says: “Sometimes the staple foods of a region can lack particular nutrients due to the soil of a region, or because of the inherent inadequacy of the normal diet. Addition of micro-nutrients to staples and condiments, can curtail and prevent the epidemic of deficiency diseases, or can just improve a human’s state of health.”
She says that proper nutrition is no longer about the over hyped ‘balanced diet’, or cornucopia of consumables; it is about the less visible vital ingredients that make up its description. They are usually ignored, or others don’t even know about their existence, but with the correct amounts, you could as well be eating shabby meals.
When her son Derrick was seven years old, Helen Kerubo from Nakuru County realised that he suddenly became inactive. He was lethargic, depressed, pale, and generally showed signs of malaise. Spotting and yellowing of his body (jaundice) were the outward manifestations of what ailed him. When fever set in on the boy, she took him to the hospital where the physician’s analysis determined the prognosis as scurvy – a disease that can prove fatal if it’s not interjected to revert its course. She was astonished when the doctor gave her only a few tablets and advised her to feed Derrick with foods rich in Vitamin C.
Like Helen, Haleka Idris, arrived in Nairobi from North Eastern Province with her son Jela, who was suffering from anaemia and severe malnutrition. Parts of the doctor’s remedy included instructions to feed her son using foods rich in iron.
The world over, tragedies happen in some mundane ways because of ‘blank’ foods that haven’t undergone fortification. Adding vitamins and minerals to foods helps to maintain and improve the nutritional quality of food supply and can correct or prevent nutritional problems in the population. Milk fortified with vitamin D has almost eliminated childhood rickets (softening of bones), and fortification of salt with iodine has decreased the occurrence of goitre in industrialised countries.
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Fortification of food has caught the trending bug with many food manufacturing companies in Kenya, and now supermarket shelves teem with fortified food products. But do buyers understand how fortification impacts their lives? Kenyan legislators seem to have blended in the gist of it by approving mandatory food fortification law.
Talking at a Global Alliance for improved nutrition (GAIN) event on October 9, the director of Public Health Sharif Shahaaz said: “The Government’s passing of mandatory food fortification legislation in Kenya is a major breakthrough in our national fight against malnutrition.”
In December 1992,159 countries endorsed the World Declaration on Nutrition, pledging “to make all efforts to eliminate... iodine and vitamin A deficiencies” and “to reduce substantially... other important micro-nutrient deficiencies, including iron,” according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) publication titled Guidelines for Food Fortification with Micro-nutrients.
It is estimated that about 170 million children around the world are stunted because of malnutrition. In Kenya, counties listed as nutrient deficient include Turkana, Mandera, Garissa, Makueni, Isiolo and Budalang’i.
In 2000, the WHO report identified iodine, iron, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, as being among the world’s most serious health risk factors. This group of elements are referred to as micro-nutrients since they are less in nature, but quintessential in the functionality of the body to retain jive and keep it healthy. WHO determined that micro-nutrient malnutrition is responsible for a wide range of non-specific physiological impairments, leading to reduced resistance to infections, metabolic disorders, among other effects.
Recently, at the launch of a campaign dubbed Scaling up Food Fortification in Kenya, Public Health minister Beth Mugo, embodied the importance of fortified food in her speech. She said: “In Kenya vitamin and mineral deficiencies continue to pose a major challenge to public health. Iron deficiency affects 43 per cent of the Kenyan children less than five years of age, 70 per cent of pregnant women and 43 per cent of women of child-bearing age suffer from iron deficiency anaemia.”
She pointed out the unflattering imposition of what unfortified foods held. “Zinc deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of, abortions, still births and stunted growth,” she said.
“On the other hand, iodine deficiency is globally acknowledged as the single major cause of preventable brain retardation.”
FOODS TO FORTIFY
Speaking for the Government, the minister said Kenya has recommended fortification of salt with iodine, cereal flours with B vitamins, iron, folic acid and zinc, oils, fats and sugar with vitamin A. This is as per the WHO recommendation to fortify foods in third world countries where diseases due to lack of pertinent nutrients are at spike high compared with industrialised nations.
Brenda points out that public health implications of micro-nutrient malnutrition are potentially huge and are, especially significant for the prevention and control of diseases such as HIV and Aids, malaria and tuberculosis, and diet-related chronic diseases.
Imagine taking your child to the hospital and being told that their bodies or brain are damaged forever because he or she lacks certain elements; from eating food void of an essential nutrient. While the Government does its part in familiarising Kenyans on fortified foods, it would be worthwhile if you have a hard look at what traverses your alimentary canal, so that cases experienced by Helen and Haleka are no more.