Modern India is a fast-growing economy, with many facets of life making headway. For many Indians, this involves meeting the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. However, the NFHS-4 and CNNS data show the devastating health status of infants, children, adolescents, and women in India, primarily due to deficient diets. This is more prevalent especially in marginalized communities. Issues like these call for a novel approach for the fortification of traditional foods.
Undernourishment: a societal evil
The health value of various micronutrients such as magnesium, zinc, iodine, selenium, copper, and vitamin A, B2, B6, B9, B12, C, and D, is well-known. Micronutrient shortages may have significant consequences for an individual’s well-being, as well as for their progeny/children (resulting from malnourished mothers).
Deficiencies of vitamin A and B9 in pre-pregnancy and during pregnancy can cause many defects. Neural tube defects and night-blindness in the progeny, are some such defects. A field study was conducted in the tribal areas of Palghar district in Maharashtra. This study found that the malnutrition status and micronutrient deficiencies in adolescent girls had a strong correlation with higher incidents of infant mortality rates.
Some Social steps taken
Low accessibility, knowledge, and affordability are the lead causes for vitamin, mineral and other nutrient-deficiencies, among rural or poor masses. The Niti Aayog and UNICEF organizations emphasize on resolving shortages in micronutrients through various approaches and plans. Interventions by governmental and non-governmental organizations have improved the situation, but it still is a long journey ahead. This necessitates micronutrient fortified diets to tackle malnutrition countrywide.
Current food fortification techniques
Whether voluntary or compulsory, fortification of food is a positive way of reaching out to the target population. It is a century-old tradition, introduced by developed countries, being followed by developing countries to fortify food items. Commonly, fortification is done with iron, iodine, folate, niacin, and so on. In India, fortified milk, flour, salt, and edible oil are available.
- Micro- and nano-encapsulation has been practiced widely in the pharmaceutical and nutraceuticals sector. This is done for the delivery of drugs and bioactive compounds. The cost-effective techniques of spray drying or spray-cooling for water- or oil-soluble vitamins, respectively can be effectuated at industrial scale using microencapsulation.
- Co-encapsulation of two or more vitamins in a single matrix is another method to formulate multi-vitamins. Indigenously produced wall materials such as gum acacia, modified starches, guar gum, oils can be used in co-encapsulation of water- and oil-soluble vitamins in one-go. These can fortify the desired foods. The advantage of encapsulation is a reduction in loss during the cooking of fortified premix/flour, thus improving availability.
- Encapsulation and conjugation of iron and various other minerals have also been researched to mask the off-taste, improve stability, and decrease interactions with other components in the matrix. Minerals such as iron, calcium, and zinc conjugated with organic or amino acids have demonstrated better bioavailability. Such conjugated minerals can be added to staples to mask the taste, improve stability, and subsequently enhance absorption in the body after ingestion. Hence, more research needs to be focussed on developing such more bioavailable forms of micronutrients in a cost-effective manner to cater to these specific needs.
Challenges that call for different techniques in micronutrient fortification:
- The low acceptability of certain micronutrient fortified foods being served to a specific population is also a reason for the prevalence of deficiencies. This indicates the need for the fortification of traditional foods, to be used as an approach.
- Staples chosen for fortification-Dietary patterns change with the regions in India. Staple cereal/millet flour chosen is crucial for acceptability and consumption.
- Minimal interaction between staple-micronutrient– Eg., Iron-fortified salt could cause oxidation of food. Minimal effect of staple processing i.e, cooking losses of folate, niacin content during chapatti, bread making.
- Masking off-taste, the color of micronutrient- Iron is a crucial micronutrient. Around 53% of Indian women (15-49 years) suffer from anemia. But a concern with iron is that its off-taste affects acceptability. Novel and upcoming techniques of micronutrient fortification
Fortification of traditional foods will have minimal impact on the daily dietary pattern of the people and will improve acceptability. Preparing premixes of culture-centric foods that have been fortified with micronutrients in an above-mentioned manner can lead to highly probable improvements. Indigenous foods such as ambil, vadi, crepes, upma, bhakari, sattu, dried-fish powder can be selected for the same.
Fortification of traditional foods
Premixes can be formulated and fortified with micronutrients. Most indigenous foods are prepared locally from available cereals, millets, or legumes. Substituting with more legume or millets in diet can simultaneously help address protein and mineral needs. Bhakari, which is a traditional Indian food, is generally prepared from rice or sorghum and partial substitution with moong or soy flour will improve protein intake.
Sprouting and malting are age-old processing techniques. These are known to improve taste and vitamin B-complex content of cereals, legumes, and millets. They also reduce the content of anti-nutritional factors such as phytates, oxalates to improve the bioavailability of minerals. Before fortifying with minerals, these processing techniques should be considered. Initial costs of setting decentralized processing units involve incorporating mixing equipment, raw materials, achieving and maintaining quality control, and sustaining, monitoring, and distribution systems.
Thus, premix formulations targeting specific populations, pan-India, need to consider culture-inclination, malted flours to reduce anti-nutritional factors, and encapsulated micronutrients for overall better implementation of the proposed methodology. Various non-profit organizations can take up such activities in collaboration with researchers. This can help them understand the feasibility of techniques in bringing about a significant improvement in the micronutrient status of the current Indian population and generations to come.
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