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How can food companies combat hidden hunger?

A sorghum farm in Tanzania.

Photo: ICRISAT HOPE / Flickr.

More than two billion people suffer from hidden hunger, making it the most widespread health problem in the world. Hidden hunger is a chronic deficiency of micronutrients, often caused by poor and unvaried diets that lack sufficient minerals and vitamins.

It is especially common in low-income countries where food consumption mainly consists of heavily refined wheat, maize and rice. The effects of hidden hunger are devastating not only for the individuals suffering cognitive and physical impediments but also for their societies and economies. Fighting hidden hunger requires cross-disciplinary action that ensures the micronutrients available in soils and crops can be absorbed by the human body.

Working on the link between suppliers and consumers, food processing companies have a unique opportunity to improve nutrition through their choice of raw materials and processing methods. A SIANI Expert Group, composed of Inclusive Business Sweden, Hidden in Grains and BioInnovate Africa, has identified three actions that processing companies can take to tackle hidden hunger.

Hidden in Grains is a Swedish food company focusing on modern hydrothermal processing, a method well suited for industrial use that has been optimized in several research projects during the last decades. Our Expert Group will soon launch an online training about how food companies can implement this method.

Use whole grains, maximise bioavailability and communicate to consumers are three actions that processing companies can take to tackle hidden hunger. Read more about each action below.

Switch to whole grains as the primary product

Thousands of grain varieties have been cultivated since wild seeds were first domesticated. During the Green Revolution that started in the 1960s, previously cultivated grain seeds were almost completely replaced by a small number of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat.

These new varieties became popular due to their high yields and their protein and carbohydrates content, micronutrient content in the form of minerals and vitamins was deprioritized. Today the food industry uses these varieties almost exclusively, which has resulted in a loss of 75% of the world’s traditional grain varieties.

Grains are among the most nutrient-dense foods available, but only in the form of whole grains. Maize, rice and wheat provide more than half of all the calories in the world. But most of the grain-based foods we consume today are heavily refined, a process that strips grains of minerals and vitamins (see diagram 1).

Infographic: How to combat hidden hunger with traditional grains

For example, modern milling of wheat flour removes the husk, the bran, and often the germ, leaving only the endosperm, thus removing up to 90% of all micronutrients. The subsequent loss of essential micronutrients from many people’s diets causes chronic deficiencies of essential minerals and vitamins.

Diagram 1. Whole wheat flour compared to refined wheat flour and enriched wheat flour.

Food companies can improve staple foods and combat hidden hunger by choosing traditional and micronutrient-dense grains as the primary raw material in their products.

As shown in diagram 2, traditional grains are richer in minerals than modern varieties. In parts of the world, such as in Eastern Africa, older traditional varieties like sorghum and millet are still in use. Many food companies are starting to work directly with farmers’ cooperatives to secure the supply of traditional grains, in order to bring them back and incorporate them in food production.

Diagram 2: Older varieties like, spelt and emmer as well as landrace varieties like Dala Wheat have a higher micronutrient density than modern wheat. 250 grams of whole grains in relation to the recommended daily intake (RDI) of different minerals, here set to 100%. 250 grams can be considered a reasonable proportion of whole grains in a daily diet.

Source: Hans Larsson, (2017) Vårt älskade bröd – för den goda smaken, hälsan och miljön. Swedish University of Agricultural Science.

Increase nutrition through hydrothermal processing

“All research ever done in this field shows that cereals have never been eaten raw or unprepared. Traditional treatments were very time-consuming and in modern times called for new techniques. However, this must be done with honor and respect for the complexity of life,” said Anni Gamerith, Institute of Technology, Graz, Austria in 1958.

Cereals are cultivated grasses that produce grains, nutrition-rich seeds designed by nature to survive until it is time to grow into a new plant and eventually produce new seeds. Because of this, the vitamins and minerals are held by phytate, a binding chemical compound, and are released only in certain environmental conditions.

Ruminants can access these nutrients in raw grains because their multiple-chambered stomachs produce a phytate-breaking enzyme. But other creatures, including humans, cannot gain the vital micronutrients from raw grains.

With time, cultures around the globe have learned to prepare grains to increase their nutrient availability, primarily using fermentation and traditional hydrothermal techniques combining water, heat and sometimes pressure. Such methods break down phytate and increase bioavailability of minerals like phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper and magnesium.

By adopting hydrothermal processing of whole grains using simple and inexpensive modern methods, food companies can create products that reach the iron absorption of red meat and increase zinc absorption by up to 400%.

As part of the work of the SIANI Expert Group, food companies from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania are receiving direct support to improve their processes and the nutritional value of their grain-based food products, using locally grown raw material and improved processing methods.

Communicate to consumers

What people eat depends on many factors, from preferences shaped by culture or social norms, to what is available and affordable. Victims of hidden hunger may not know how to create a balanced and nutritious diet. This is where food companies and public institutions can play a key role.

It’s vital that nutritious products reach the market. But it’s equally important that consumers understand why they should change their purchasing habits and adopt good food preparation practices. Through marketing campaigns and social advertisement, for example by using food packaging as a communication tool, companies can not only raise awareness and improve education about nutrition but also increase their consumer base and market share. In our next article, we will go into some of the arguments and benefits food companies can communicate to consumers, as well as talk more about how exactly our body absorbs minerals and vitamins.

What else is happening in our SIANI Expert Group?

As part of the SIANI Expert Group work and through the BioInnovate Africa programme, food companies from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania are receiving direct support to improve their processes and the nutritional value of their grain-based foods, using locally grown raw materials. This work will also include online training on these topics conducted by Hidden in Grains, Stawi Foods and Fruits, and Inclusive Business Sweden. It will be available for actors all along the value chain of grains. Stay tuned!

Recommended reading:

1. Nelson, A. R. L. E., Ravichandran, K., & Antony, U. (2019). The impact of the Green Revolution on indigenous crops of India. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 6(1), 8.

2. FAO Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, 2019

3. Frei, M. & Becker, K. (2004). On rice, biodiversity & nutrients. University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart. Access it online.

4. Pichop, G. N., Abukutsa-Onyango, M., Noorani, A., & Nono-Womdim, R. (2014). Importance of indigenous food crops in tropical Africa: case study. In XXIX International Horticultural Congress on Horticulture: Sustaining Lives, Livelihoods and Landscapes (IHC2014): 1128 (pp. 315-322).

5. Sandberg A-S. (2020). Rätt beredning och processen av växtbaserade livsmedel minskar risk för brist på järn och zink. Nutritionsfakta 2020. Access it online.

6. Hurrell, R. F., Reddy, M. B., Juillerat, M. A., & Cook, J. D. (2003). Degradation of phytic acid in cereal porridges improves iron absorption by human subjects. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 77(5), (pp.1213-1219). Access it online.

7. Fredlund K. et al. (2003) Hydrothermal treatment and malting of barley improved zinc absorption but not calcium absorption in humans. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition volume 57 (pp.1507–1513) Access it online.

8. E-L. Bergman, K. Fredlund, P. Reinikainen,. & A-S. Sandberg (2001) Development of predictive models for optimization of phytate degradation in wheat and rye during hydrothermal processing. Cereal Chemistry 78 (2). (pp.144-50). Access it online.

9. Bergman, E. L., Fredlund, K., Reinikainen, P., & Sandberg, A. S. (1999). Hydrothermal Processing of Barley (cv. Blenheim): Optimisation of Phytate Degradation and Increase of Free Myo-inositol. Journal of Cereal Science, 29(3), (pp.261-272).