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Breakthroughs in food fortification to curb diseases

By Chukwuma Muanya, Mohammed Yakubu and Abigail Ikhaghu
23 September 2021   |   3:09 am
Scientists have recorded breakthroughs in efforts to prevent diseases and birth defects through food fortification.

[files] Rice

United Kingdom plans to add folic acid to flour products to help prevent birth defects
• Acholonu urges protection for intellectual property as Nigeria fights infant malnutrition
• BASF, EDCEL leverage micronutrients lab to provide support for small scale entrepreneurs

Scientists have recorded breakthroughs in efforts to prevent diseases and birth defects through food fortification.

Food fortification is defined as the practice of adding vitamins and minerals to commonly consumed foods during processing to increase their nutritional value. It is a proven, safe and cost-effective strategy for improving diets and for the prevention and control of micronutrient deficiencies.

For many years, countries across the developing world have fortified staples such as maize flour, wheat flour and oil with micronutrients that are deficient in the diet. In Nigeria, for example, flour, maize, oil and sugar have been fortified with vitamin A since the 1990s.

The United Kingdom (UK) government had on Monday announced that folic acid is to be added to flour to prevent spinal birth defects in babies.

Women are advised to take the B vitamin – which can guard against spina bifida in unborn babies – before and during pregnancy, but many do not.

It is thought that adding folic acid to flour could prevent up to 200 birth defects a year. The new rules will only apply to non-wholemeal wheat flour, with gluten-free foods and wholemeal flour exempt.

Mandatory fortification – which the government ran a public consultation on in 2019 – will see everybody who eats foods such as bread getting more folic acid in their diets.

Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (abnormal development of the spine) and anencephaly, a life-limiting condition, which affects the brain, affect about 1,000 pregnancies per year in the UK.

Folic acid is added to flour in more than 80 countries – and when it was added to bread in Australia, neural tube defects fell by 14 per cent.

However, there have previously been concerns that mandatory fortification could have unintended health effects, such as masking a vitamin B12 deficiency or increasing the risk of colon cancer.

MEANWHILE, Chief Executive of Bio-Organics Nutrient Systems Limited and quadruple patent holder, Dr. Kenny Uzoma Acholonu, has called on regulatory agencies and players in the Nigerian scientific community, covering medical, pharmaceutical, and most importantly nutritional products, to ensure recognition and protection of intellectual property rights and thereby encourage innovation even as he commended regulatory agencies pushing for enhanced utilisation of patented micronutrient formulations.

Acholonu is the sole Nigerian patent holder for the design and technology of micronutrient powder (MNP) essential for providing 15 micronutrients as a vehicle for improving the nutritional value of all semi-solid foods consumed at home. He also holds three United States (U.S.) patents in organic synthesis of monomers.

MNPs are products designed to address micronutrient deficiencies, including anaemia, by improving the quality of children’s diets, to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies where access to diverse nutritious foods is limited. Good nutrition in early life helps prevent forms of malnutrition including stunting. It supports a child’s cognitive and physical development, health, and growth, to help them reach their full potential.

Acholonu stated that giving due recognition and compensation for patents would spur even more scientific innovations in Nigeria; increase productive intellectual capital, creation of high-wage jobs and high-value products. Consequently, the promotion of sciences, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) leads to increased patent applications, which is now a measure of industrial competitiveness.

Acholonu is the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) of Micronutrient Laboratories Ltd and founder of Bio-Organics Nutrient Systems Ltd 1991-2015. He earlier worked as a director at Hoffman La Roche in Nigeria and with the Stamford Research Laboratory, a division of American Cyanamid Corporation in the United States. He has over 40 years of academic knowledge application to various industries with special emphasis on micronutrient designs and formulation both in the food and beverage industry, animal health and nutrition industry, also the pharmaceutical industry. Federal and State Governments are working strenuously to ensure that Nigeria develops capacity in various areas relating to malnutrition through food fortification in the wake of support by global financial institutions such as the World Bank- Accelerating Nutrition Results in Nigeria (ANRiN) Project. Nigeria is also stepping up efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Micronutrient Laboratories Limited launched in November 2020 its Cognito Micronutrient Powder. Acholonu stated then, “Cognito began as a response to a challenge and societal need. Rotary International and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) threw the challenge of local production of micronutrient powder in Nigeria in 2009. No pharmaceutical or food company could take up the challenge. Before and since then, Nigeria imports MNP. They approached me based on recommendations by BASF, the world leader in chemicals. My team and I took up the challenge. We produced Micronutrient powder to global standards. We have patented domesticated technology for producing micronutrient powder in the Nigerian market.”

ALSO, there were indications yesterday that BASF West Africa has entered into collaboration with EDCEL Limited to boost the Federal government’s food fortification agenda by leveraging its micronutrients laboratory to provide technical and analytical support for Small and Medium Scale entrepreneurs.

The support, according to the group’s Managing Director, Dr. JeanMarc Ricca, covered the recent launching of Vitamin A premix for edible oils, targeted at the menial entrepreneurs.

Ricca stated that vitamin A oil premix is an innovative solution, which will give small and medium scale entrepreneurs’ access to an affordable pack size of vitamin A with which they can fortify edible oils, irrespective of the quantities being produced.

He explained that the innovation would “reduce malnutrition and eliminate hidden hunger, particularly at the base of the income pyramid”, noting that lack of micronutrients in daily diets results in children and young adults being more vulnerable to diseases and they are usually at greater risk of death.

Emphasising the hazards of malnutrition, Ricca added: “Poor nutrition also prevents children from realizing their full potential – stunting not only their physical and intellectual growth but also their future ambition, educational and employment opportunities.”

The Guardian learnt that the edible oil industry is highly fragmented, with small millers being responsible for more than 60 per cent of the production of edible oils in Nigeria.

Apart from this, another major challenge faced by micro millers is the lack of dosing equipment and analytical test equipment.

According to Ricca, acquiring this equipment is costly and requires specialized technical skills to operate. But he explained that with the Foundation’s micronutrients testing laboratory opened on its Ilupeju site in 2019, BASF West Africa is rightly positioned to offer internal technical and analytical services for all large and small-scale millers across the country.

On his part, the Managing Director of EDCEL Limited, Mr. Cletus Chibuko, whose company produces ‘CEED Vitamin A premix’, in developing countries such as Nigeria, said, a large section of the population has poor access to eggs, fish, dairy products, colorful produce and fortified cereals.

He said: “CEED Vitamin A premix is set to address micronutrient deficiency of Vitamin A and Vitamin D through the fortification of edible oil, a primary ingredient in many food end-products, and which is widely used and available through all strata of the Nigerian society.

“Combating malnutrition through food fortification is critical for long term development and many countries across the region of Africa implement fortification in food processing, which can be achieved together by industry, government development leaders and individuals. At BASF, our food fortification efforts aim to realize five UN Sustainable Development Goals – zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, reduced inequalities, decent work and economic growth, and partnerships for the goals.”|