Tackling India’s hidden hunger with fortified foods

07 December 2021 | Opinion

The food industry has a key role in helping Indian consumers shift to a nutritionally adequate diet. It’s time to get started

Efforts to overcome India’s nutrient deficiency problem have suffered a major setback during the pandemic. Disruptions to supply chains and livelihoods have both reduced the availability of healthy food and the ability to pay for it. Cost-effective and scientifically proven, increased food fortification could be part of the answer. And, for the food business, it’s an opportunity ripe with potential. 


Even before the pandemic, the level of malnourishment in India was high. Protein deficiency affected more than 80 per cent of the population, according to the Indian Market Research Bureau. In a report from 2018, the Indian Journal of Medical Research stated that micronutrient deficiency, primarily driven by insufficient iron intake, was responsible for anaemia in up to 60 per cent of women and preschool children. Diets are similarly deficient in calcium, vitamin A and D, riboflavin and folic acid – a situation likely worsened by COVID-19.


Although malnutrition is known to be a common side-effect of increased poverty, this hidden hunger is widespread in all population groups in India regardless of age or income – though women and children tend to be the most nutritionally disadvantaged. Cultural food habits and low awareness are contributing factors. 



Government push for fortification


The Indian government has long recognised the benefits of food fortification. Vegetable oil was first fortified with vitamin A in the 1950s. Then, in 2016, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) established fortification standards for staple food products, including rice, wheat flour and milk. FSSAI initiated the Food Fortification Resource Centre at the same time. The centre has since set out consumer-friendly labelling requirements for all fortified food products, including a statement of which vitamins and minerals they contain plus the +F logo and tagline ‘Sampoorna Poshan Swasth Jeevan’.


Experience shows that fortification typically adds just 3 per cent to 7 per cent to a product’s price, keeping it relatively affordable. Nonetheless, the production of fortified staple foods remains low. Estimates published by Dalberg indicate that less than 20 per cent of edible oil, salt and milk produced for consumers is fortified, along with 3 per cent of wheat flour and a mere 0.2 per cent of rice.



The compelling need to do more


So, how can food manufacturers play a bigger part in addressing India’s massive hidden hunger problem? First and foremost, they can contribute to improved accessibility by extending fortification to a wider range of food products that are convenient to consume. In addition, whether they are fortifying with macronutrients like protein or micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, food manufacturers have good opportunities to develop nutritious foods with high sensory appeal.


The severe shortage of protein in Indian diets is just one of the many compelling reasons to encourage dietary change. According to a study of protein intake, consumers obtain 60 per cent of protein from cereals with low digestibility and quality. In other words, the issue is not only that they eat too little protein. It’s also that much of the protein they consume is incomplete in terms of essential amino acid content. Poor muscle health is among the consequences.



Improving dietary protein


Protein-enriched foods are a means to better muscle health, improve immunity and, among the overweight and obese, improve insulin response and reduce diabetes. India’s Right to Protein initiative is one of the voices that is raising awareness about the need for more high-quality protein in the diet – from animal and plant-based sources. 


To accommodate the country’s large vegetarian population, food manufacturers can draw on high-quality protein from soy or pea, for example, or from dairy. Clinical studies have also highlighted the advantages of combining plant and dairy proteins in blends. Due to the differing digestion rates of the proteins, amino acid delivery may continue over an extended period after consumption, maximising the benefits to muscle health, for example.


Today, the nutritional benefits of high-quality protein are easy to incorporate in a vast array of food and beverage products. Food manufacturers only have to look to ingredient companies like IFF for value addition.



Opportunities with fermentation 


In recent times, the global plant-based trend has motivated IFF to develop a new series of starter cultures for fermented plant-based foods. One of the advantages of the fermentation process is that it increases the digestibility of plant raw materials, unlocking protein and other nutrients and, in many cases, enhancing their sensory quality. Cultures are, consequently, an inspiring starting point when developing nutritious and appealing fermented products for consumer groups accustomed to a high-cereal diet. 


Add to that the probiotic properties of specific bacteria strains. As documented in clinical studies, such probiotic cultures represent another source of benefits for digestive and immune health when included in dairy products, bars, beverages and frozen desserts.



No sensory compromise


One of the most enduring challenges when producing fortified foods is the sensory challenges that arise when proteins, vitamins and minerals are added. 


There are solutions to that, too. At IFF, sensory research and the latest flavour technologies have enabled the development of advanced masking tools for managing undesirable flavour notes from plant-based proteins. Designed for a wide range of protein-enriched foods and beverages, the tools neutralise and block off-notes and modulate mouthfeel.


Tailored flavour systems and texturising ingredients provide countless other possibilities across the fortified food spectrum. The goal is always to elevate the sensory appeal and encourage wider consumption – so health and enjoyment go hand-in-hand.


Ingredient technology has many fortification opportunities to offer nutrient-hungry India – the handful mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg. All the food industry has to do is take up the gauntlet. By allying themselves with national fortification programmes, awareness campaigns and reliable ingredient suppliers, manufacturers can make a true difference. Responsive and responsible product development can help bridge the nutritional gap. 



Prakash MG, MD, India sub-continent, IFF





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