Growing pains: The fight to end malnutrition

At least one in three people worldwide experience some form of malnutrition. Ahead of an upcoming SEAChange workshop to explore scaleable solutions to improving nutrition for low to middle income consumers, Eco-Business looks at the extent of the scourge and efforts against it.

Malnutrition occurs across the globe, but the problem is especially acute in Asia. More than half of all stunted children, almost half of all overweight children and more than two-thirds of all wasted children – that is, their weight is too low for their height – live in the region, according to a 2017 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Bank Group.

Such malnutrition affects both lives and economies. Even when children survive severe acute or chronic malnutrition, for example, they suffer from poor brain development and cognitive impairment. This makes them more likely to fail in school, which in turn limits their job prospects, creating the so-called double burden of malnutrition. In India, about one in five children are wasted and this is expected to cost the country’s economy US$46 billion by 2030.

Experts also point out that a lack of cohesive efforts is resulting in a gap in information, and that policy actions taken in isolation are unlikely to achieve the cross-sectoral outcomes that are essential to sustainable economic growth and development.

In 2015, the United Nations pledged to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030 as part of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eliminate poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. “It is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food,” the countries said.  

To help combat the health and economic burden of malnutrition, Royal DSM, a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials, brings together representatives from the private sector, government agencies, non-government groups and academia to discuss strategies to make nutritious food affordable, and sell it to low-income households. 

Such households are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition because they typically live on one-dimensional, staple-based diets and lack access to nutritious products.

DSM’s close involvement in the implementation of the SDGs is not an optional add-on to its day-to-day activities. Rather, the company says its nutrition-related business aims to provide people with healthy, nutritious food that is affordable, available, and aspirational for all.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, from January 23 to 26, DSM will co-host a breakfast discussion on transforming diets for better quality nutrition, in line with this year’s theme of “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”.

DSM is also organising the Sustainable Evidence-based Actions for Change (SEAChange) Workshop in Singapore on 25 and 26 January, to bring together a coalition of cross-sector partners to develop affordable, accessible and nutritious products for low to middle income consumers in Southeast and South Asian countries.

“The challenges affecting the global food system are systemic and interconnected,” says André Rhoen, vice-president of human nutrition and health at DSM Nutritional Products, Asia Pacific. “Addressing these challenges requires action supported by broad, cross-industry partnerships.”

Many hands make light work

DSM itself often works with other organisations, including local ones, to develop, test and market its nutrition-enriched food products. In Asia, the firm’s main area of focus is fortified rice, which is rice enriched with vitamins and minerals such as iron and zinc; this is because it is a major staple food product in the region, where each person eats about 150 kilogrammes of milled rice per year.

In Singapore, DSM is partnering Base of Pyramid (BoP) Hub, a non-profit group, to provide foreign construction workers in the city-state with the fortified rice. In 2015, a study led by the National University of Singapore had exposed the poor quality of the food, usually rice and curry, given to the workers.

DSM supplies BoP Hub with rice kernels enhanced with iron, zinc, calcium and other micronutrients. These are then blended with regular milled rice, packaged and sold to caterers that prepare the workers’ meals. About 15,000 workers have benefited from the project so far, and it is slated to be expanded to hospitals, low-income communities and the commercial market in Singapore.

Since 2013, DSM has also joined forces with the governments of the Netherlands and Bangladesh as well as the United Nations’ World Food Programme to provide fortified rice to people in Bangladesh who are at high risk of malnutrition. These include women and families enrolled in the country’s Vulnerable Group Development programme, disaster-affected families, schoolchildren and garment factory employees.

In Indonesia, DSM and Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German government-owned enterprise, jointly conducted a study from January to September 2016 to evaluate fortified rice’s effectiveness in reducing malnutrition among schoolchildren in Medan. The trial involved 200 teenage girls at an Islamic boarding school where the students had limited access to fruit, vegetables and red meat.

At the end of the study, the 100 students who received the fortified rice had higher levels of iron, zinc and vitamins A, B3 and B12 compared to their counterparts in the control group, in line with the micronutrients that were in the rice. 

“These are just a few of the projects where we have actively sought collaboration with cross-sector partners,” says Rhoen.

“Projects that are run through different channels, social safety nets and retail have the highest chance of reaching the largest population,” he adds.  

The challenges affecting the global food system are systemic and interconnected. Addressing these challenges requires action supported by broad, cross-industry partnerships.

André Rhoen, vice-president of human nutrition and health at DSM Nutritional Products, Asia Pacific

Food for thought

Rhoen notes that more can be done in Asia, and companies that do good in the region can do well for themselves too: “There is a market opportunity here. Low-income earners in Asia have a combined purchasing power of US$3.47 trillion, which is 42 percent of the region’s total purchasing power.”

 “They also spend 60 percent of their money on food. Yet malnutrition remains widespread, which points to the inadequacy of the food they are buying now,” he says.

Still, he cautions that companies looking to fill the nutritional gap should be mindful of local food preferences and cultural practices, and adapt their business models accordingly.

To retain rice’s flavour and texture while boosting its nutritional value, DSM embeds the micronutrients in the kernels. “This protects the vitamins and minerals during washing and cooking, and maintains the look, feel, taste and behaviour of the rice, minimising any disruption to the sensory experience of those cooking and eating it,” he says.

A 2014 report funded by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) also noted that in Bangladesh, micronutrient powders sell well because women are used to cooking with spices, whereas such powders failed in Indonesia where food supplements and vitamins are mostly sold in the form of pills.

Packaging is also key, according to the report. With some low-wage earners being paid bi-weekly and others daily or monthly, food products should be sold in a variety of sizes and prices to ensure that all can afford them.

Advertising should also be aspirational rather than focus on health issues, as food products that show how children who consume them grow up to be stronger and smarter have traditionally been more successful than those that highlight how they can be used to combat illnesses and diseases. 

In 2017, the Global Nutrition Report, which is produced annually by an independent team of researchers in partnership with the WHO, noted that every US$1 invested in combating malnutrition has a US$16 payoff.

Rhoen concludes: “There is a strong business case for food companies and other organisations to invest in the development of affordable nutritious products to meet their commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and increase their reach in an untapped market.

“Asia, in particular, presents a great opportunity from both the economic and health perspectives for the development of such products to address the double burden of malnutrition.”

 

The fourth edition of the Sustainable Evidence-based Actions for Change (SEAChange) Workshop will be held in Singapore’s Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel on January 25 and 26. Organised by Royal DSM, it is the first edition which seeks to empower the food industry to adopt sustainable business models selling nutritious food products to low-income earners. To learn more about the event, visit http://seachangenutrition.org.

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