Hidden hunger – the common term for vitamin and mineral deficiency – can be an insidious form of malnutrition because it is less visible than other forms, such as wasting. And yet, not only does this global health burden have a proven solution, it is also almost entirely preventable.
Today, it affects two billion people – a quarter of the global population. Deficiency in nutrients such as iron, folic acid, iodine and vitamin A can be debilitating and life-threatening for pregnant women and developing infants. Food fortification is a proven, cost-effective, scalable and sustainable intervention to address hidden hunger by adding vitamins and minerals to staple foods and condiments. It has already led to a dramatic decline in hidden hunger globally, boosting communities and entire national economies along the way.
In 2018, the Global Nutrition Report called for a data revolution on the burden of micronutrient malnutrition, citing an urgent need to better understand its underlying causes in order to target it with effective interventions. While the World Health Organization tracks global hidden hunger through the Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition Information System, significant data gaps persist across too many vitamins and geographies, keeping decision-makers in the dark.
So how can we drive greater visibility and action, and reach those still affected by hidden hunger?
How data visualisations can drive action toward a fortified future
The Global Fortification Data Exchange (GFDx) maps global food fortification - a simple and effective intervention to help end hidden hunger. GFDx data maps tell the powerful story of a critical data set: globally, many countries have passed legislation for food fortification but are struggling to practically implement it, or are not collecting the data necessary to track it. For example, the coverage map below shows in orange counties where – despite mandatory salt fortification – the data required to track legislation is missing.
Population coverage of fortified salt in countries with mandatory fortification
Spanning up to 196 countries, GFDx interactive data visualisations reveal that millions of people still do not benefit from consuming fortified foods. In India, for instance, adding iron to staple foods such as wheat flour and rice could help address anemia, a condition with a staggering burden on the country, affecting half of women and children. In Nicaragua, where folic acid is added to staple foods to prevent birth defects, no national data exists to show whether the intervention is reaching the population.
In some countries, food fortification might be picking up momentum but missing critical opportunities. The Philippines, for instance, is one of eight countries worldwide that mandates the fortification of wheat flour with vitamins and minerals, yet it does not stipulate folic acid, a vitamin that prevents many severe birth defects. And in Nigeria, policies are already in place to fortify wheat and maize flour, but inaction on fortifying rice, a critical staple, may still leave children vulnerable to birth defects.
GFDx presents the data critical to answering major questions on food fortification: Does a given country legislate food fortification? How much of the food consumed in a given country is fortified at levels that meet standards? What proportion of a country’s population is consuming fortified staple foods, such as maize flour, oil, rice, salt or wheat flour? The GFDx will soon host data analysing how a country’s standards compare to the World Health Organization’s fortification recommendations.
By harmonising and visualising data on commonly fortified foods across the spectrum of nutrition programs – including policy, population coverage, program monitoring, food quality, and coming in 2020, evaluation, the GFDx reveals gaps, facilitates comparison and learnings between countries, and thereby identifies opportunities for fortification to reach all populations.
But data isn’t much good if it doesn’t lead to action.
Making it actionable – the next step in the data revolution
Now that the tool is in place, the focus has shifted to driving action.
How do we leverage this tool to reach the two billion people affected by hidden hunger and protect mothers and newborns from devastating and entirely preventable consequences?
The GFDx plans to publish examples of the health impact of fortification from countries around the world. This is the most persuasive evidence to empower advocates, sway political will and reform national nutrition programmes. Perhaps most critically, the GFDx is engaging partners and global stakeholders to use the data for advocacy and decision-making, with the ultimate goal of countries adopting or improving food fortification programmes.
Could a known solution and a data revolution visualise and catalyse better nutrition, stronger communities and boosted economies – a future fortified against hidden hunger, where all mothers and newborns can thrive?