Everyone can agree that worldwide hunger is an issue of the utmost importance. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated 815 million people across the globe, or one in ten, suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2016. However, the true enormity of this need is significantly greater than this statistic; hidden hunger, or a deficiency in micronutrients such as iron, calcium and vitamins A and B, affects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide. Children and pregnant women, especially in low and middle income countries, are most impacted by a lack of vitamins and minerals. One in three children in the world is estimated to suffer from a lack of micronutrients, which can impede physical and cognitive development. Depending on the specific vitamin deficiency, victims of hidden hunger can experience fatigue, headaches, lack of energy, impaired immunity, poorer eyesight, birth defects and death. While developing regions are often most affected by a lack of micronutrients, even people with plentiful access to food can suffer from vitamin deficiency. Obesity is often caused by the lack of essential nutrients in one’s diet, which can result in a constant feeling of hunger and excessive food consumption.
A new study published by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other renowned institutions, offers a promising solution to this crisis. The group designed tiny packets, referred to as microparticles, which can dissolve in the digestive system but retain their integrity throughout the cooking process. Each microparticle can be used to package up to four different kinds of nutrients, such as iron, zinc, iodine and vitamins A, B12, C and D.
According to Ana Jaklenec, a researcher at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the microparticles are made from the consumable plastic used to coat pills, but are “smaller than a grain of sand.” She claims that they could be added into any mass-produced, granular food such as flour and salt as it is being produced.
Attempts have already been made to fortify certain foods with micronutrients such as iron and vitamin A. According to the Global Fortification Data Exchange, 137 countries legally require at least one type of food to be fortified to some degree. However, current fortification methods have several key flaws. Some fortified foods do not actually have enough nutrients to have any positive impact, and some nutrients break down before consumption due to the cooking process. In addition, iron-fortified foods can have a metallic taste and a slightly different coloration, causing consumers to avoid them.
In addition to avoiding these pitfalls, microparticles have been highly effective in experimental trials. Researchers fed iron-packed microparticles to a group of two dozen people and found that 89% of the iron was absorbed in the participants’ bloodstreams, whereas the control trial that was fed traditionally-made iron-fortified food only absorbed 80%. Studies with rats have also shown the ability of microparticles to boost a subject’s vitamin A concentration.
While the results of these studies are promising, microparticles do not necessarily present the ultimate solution to worldwide hidden hunger. Cost is a huge factor to take into consideration; adding microparticles to foods may increase their price and decrease poorer people’s access to them, even though low-income populations generally have the greatest need for better nutrition. Other methods to combat hidden hunger should also be used, such as giving corporations incentives to make nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables more accessible and less expensive. Citizens should also lobby for better government enforcement of fortification policy. While science and technology are great tools for improving societal problems, they cannot entirely fix issues that are rooted in inequality and class divisions. As stated by Roland Kupka, a senior nutrition adviser at UNICEF, we cannot forget that “when it comes to food fortifications we have technologies that are not very fancy and that are very effective when done well … What we really need is political will.”
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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.