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HEALTH-SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Fortified Flour – Key Nutrition Strategy

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 22 2007 (IPS) - When Indonesian women and children tuck into cups of ‘Indomie’, a popular brand of instant noodles, they are assured a tasty staple healthier than most other brands sold across South-east Asia.

Indomie, say public health experts, is made from flour that is fortified with vitamins and minerals that are essential for a child’s growth, both physically and mentally.

This effort is winning praise for Indonesian food processing companies like PT Indofood Sukses Makmur from international bodies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Even the Flour Fortification Initiative (FFI), a global network of groups campaigning to strengthen flour with micronutrients, has a good word for the Jakarta-based corporation that supplies Indonesian consumers a range of processed food items, of which ‘Indomie’ is one.

‘’We did it after realising that Indonesia had a micronutrient problem, a deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the food consumed,’’ says Budianto Wijaya, vice president at Indofood. ‘’The only answer was fortification of the flour used for our products.’’

His company’s achievement is one shared by others in the flour milling sector and the processed food trade, ensuring that all locally supplied processed food products have been fortified. ‘’You have to have a level playing field for this to work. All companies have to agree to supply fortified flour,’’ he said during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, where he is attending a regional conference on the need to fortify food to reduce undernutrition in South-east and East Asia.

Indofood made the switch in 1999, giving rise to a national trend that was also supported by the Indonesian government. South-east Asia’s largest nation became the first country in the region to pass laws in 2002 that made flour fortification mandatory for all processed food products. The only other country in South-east Asia to follow Indonesia’s example is the Philippines, which enacted similar laws soon after.

The U.N. children’s agency is using this week’s conference in Malaysia, which began Wednesday, to convince other governments to follow the lead taken by Indonesia and the Philippines to make food fortification mandatory. ‘’We are advocating to make food fortification mandatory, with flour fortification being taken up this time,’’ Kul Gautam, deputy executive director of UNICEF, told IPS from Kuala Lumpur.

Such a government initiative through laws would ensure that an entire population benefits from the enhanced food, he explained. ‘’If not made mandatory, companies will only fortify flour for premium customers and not the poor. The laws will ensure that all will benefit.’’

The urgency to help the vulnerable was conveyed in the background notes released by UNICEF at the conference. In East Asia and the Pacific, some 22 million children are under-nourished due to lack of proper vitamins and minerals in their diet, which includes ‘’17 percent of children under the age of five in China (being) anaemic.’’

In the Philippines, about a third of the children are stunted and underweight, while over a quarter of children younger than five are underweight in Indonesia and Vietnam, said UNICEF. Even in more affluent Malaysia, close to 38 percent of pregnant women were anaemic.

‘’Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals in diets make people vulnerable to infection and disease,’’ added UNICEF. ‘’Globally, such deficiencies contribute annually to the death of one million children younger than five and approximately 50,000 young women during pregnancy and childbirth.’’

Vitamin and mineral deficiency has led to the ‘’impairment of hundreds of millions of growing minds and the lowering of national IQ,’’ states FFI, a public-private initiative, based in the U.S. city of Atlanta. ‘’Iron deficiency and folic acid deficiency are particularly devastating, causing 200,000 serious birth defects annually.’’

‘’Wheat flour fortifications offers a tremendous opportunity to improve the vitamin and mineral status of populations because more than 400 million tons of wheat is eaten each year, most of which is milled by large roller mills,’’ adds FFI in a blueprint that reveals its ‘’Call To Action.’’ ‘’Currently, about 26 percent of the world’s countries fortify wheat flour with iron and/or folic acid, versus about 19 percent two years ago.’’

FFI is pushing to achieve a formidable goal by 2008: have 70 percent of wheat flour coming out of mills fortified with iron and folic acid. To cross that mark work in 14 countries should be accelerated, adds the FFI website hosted by Emory University in Atlanta. These countries include China, India, Russia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, among others.

‘’This is a worldwide movement to make fortified flour a normal milling practice,’’ says Glen Maberly, a professor of public health at Emory University and a coordinator of FFI. ‘’Some millers are prepared to do it; others not. Governments need to indicate that this should be done.’’

Till this drive, it was also normal milling practice to ‘’strip the minerals and vitamins from the wheat,’’ Maberly said during a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur. ‘’The part that is stripped out is always fed to the animals and the people get the part that lacks the essential vitamins and minerals.’’

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