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No better time to live on fortified foods than now and beyond

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Food fortification, the process of enriching staples and commonly consumed condiments with vitamins and/or minerals, is a proven sustainable and cost-effective food-based approach to improving the health and well-being of large numbers of vulnerable people, especially where existing food supplies and limited access fail to provide adequate levels of the respective nutrients in the diet.

Nigeria began its national fortification with salt iodisation in 1993 and has since then graduated to other food vehicles like flours, sugar, oil & margarine with vitamin A, iron & Zinc. Nigeria has, over time, made significant impact of fortification on its micronutrient malnutrition coupled with global recognition in coverage as a result of strong commitment and joint effort with industry. However, consistency in commitment and compliance declined at some point for some obvious reasons, and of course, with some consequences.

If food fortification has been proven effective, then let’s do it more and better especially now that we are facing the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the world. It is high time the regulatory agencies and other public and private stakeholders returned to the drawing board to make industrial compliance with adequate fortification and public consumption of fortified foods a topmost priority in their response to this pandemic.

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We mandatorily fortify some of our foods and condiments in Nigeria – wheat flour and products; maize flour and products; sugar, oil and margarine – with vitamin A which is a micronutrient of public health importance. This is a giant stride!

Vitamin A, apart from playing an important role in vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division and cell differentiation, is a very important vitamin in regulating the immune system which we all need at this period to challenge the coronavirus. The immune system helps prevent or fight off infections by making white blood cells that destroy harmful bacteria and viruses and may help lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, function more effectively.

There is no better time than now for our regulatory agencies (SON, NAFDAC & FCCPC) to strengthen their monitoring systems and awareness to ensure concerned food industries comply fully with the set national standards for fortification of these food vehicles and ensure its stability all through marketing and distribution channels till they get to the consumers. International NGOs like GAIN and NI could be of help in creating the enabling environment for this.

Complementarily at household levels, there are available biofortified crops that are rich in pro vitamin A as well. We have pro vitamin A cassava (yellow cassava), pro vitamin A maize (orange maize) and sweetpotato (orange fleshed sweetpotato) in our local markets and stores that we can buy and use at home to boost our immune system against this virus. Let’s tap into these resources against the killer virus called ‘Corona’. Development organizations like FANN, IITA, Harvest-Plus, CIP and NRCRI can be contacted on these.

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In addition to vitamin A, we seriously need vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid to further boost our immune system. Although, Nigeria is not mandatorily fortifying its foods with vitamin C at the moment, it is high time our government began to think of mandatory vitamin C fortification through suitable vehicles. Vitamin C is an essential water soluble vitamin with many roles and link to impressive health benefits. It can be found in common fruits like citrus fruits – orange, lemon, lime, tangerine; guava, strawberries, kiwi fruit and some vegetables like spinach, bell peppers and broccoli.

One of the main reasons people take vitamin C supplements is to boost their immunity, as it is involved in many parts of the immune system. First, it helps in the production of white blood cells, which help protect the body against infections. Second, it helps these white blood cells to function more effectively while protecting them from damage by potentially harmful molecules, such as free radicals. Third, it is an essential part of the skin’s defense system. It’s actively transported to the skin, where it can act as an antioxidant and help strengthen the skin’s barriers.

Strengthening the value chain of these fortified foods through joint efforts of the government and food industries/businesses as well as awareness/sensitisation on biofortified foods and vitamin C-rich foods will make significant contribution to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
*Dr Phorbee is of Food Agriculture Nutrition Network (FANN), Abuja, Nigeria.

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