Health & Fitness

Make fortified foods affordable for Kenyans

food

A family having a picnic. Although in some cases fortified foods are more expensive than the unfortified options, families should ensure they balance their meals in order to avoid lack of micronutrients which costs more in medical bills. File

Kenya will lose estimated Sh3.2 trillion by the year 2030 if rampant malnutrition is not addressed. Further, in a span of five years, more than 360,000 children will die as a result of Vitamin A deficiency, according to data from the ministry of public health and sanitation.

The shocking statistics have not only caught the attention of public health professionals but have sent local food manufacturing companies into drafting strategies of tapping from opportunities in private sector contribution to the health sector.

Last week, Mumias Sugar Company launched the first Vitamin A fortified sugar in the region. It has followed in the steps of such companies as Unga group, Capwel of Thika and Bidco that have pioneered in food fortification.

“Enormous credit is due to Mumias Sugar Company for taking the initiative to enrich its sugar with Vitamin A. This will make a significant contribution to improving the nutrition status of people of Kenya especially children and pregnant women,” said Olivia Yambi, UNICEF Kenya representative.

It is no doubt that the future of food manufacturing is directed towards addressing emerging health challenges and if the government adopts mandatory standards for food certification, such companies stand to benefit from large markets as then there will be no cheap alternatives of unfortified food stuffs.

Through their Vitamin A fortified sugar brand, Mumias has a wide market as currently only Zambia and Nigeria manufacture fortified sugar.

Duping consumers

But consumer rights activists believe that such innovations should be accompanied by certified standards to ensure that consumers are not duped.

“The reason COFEK is more apprehensive and equally concerned is that while food fortification with Vitamin A is most cost-effective, it must be guided by some principles, standards and procedures,” said Edwin Wanjawa, executive officer, Consumers Federation of Kenya, COFEK.

At the moment, fortified foods retail in Kenya at a higher price than the unfortified ones hence companies that have fortified their products do not enjoy a 100 percent demand for them.

Unga group for example is the seller of Jogoo extra and Hostess brands of maize meal flour that is fortified with iron, folic acid and zinc. These products sell alongside unfortified maize flours.

For Capwel Limited, pendana, the company’s name for the fortified flour is a promising venture going by the number of customers opting for the product following campaigns on healthy living but it is yet to achieve a 100 percent preference.

“At the moment what we are doing is encouraging our partners who are offering relief food to the vulnerable communities to take up the fortified foodstuffs,” said Gladys Mugambi, deputy head department of nutrition at the ministry of public health and sanitation.

Despite food fortification being a relatively expensive exercise, it would make business sense for a company that manufactures regularly used products to turn into food fortification.

In itself, sugar is consumed in almost all Kenyan households at various intervals. In her view, Ms Mugambi says that through constant education on the long term benefit of consuming a packet of fortified sugar, many will turn to healthy living.

“Our next step is to educate the public that adding that little amount of money to buy fortified foodstuff is cheaper than having to deal with the effects of micronutrient deficiency. When a mandatory fortification programme is adopted there will be no cheap alternatives,” she added.

Such a requirement was adopted for salt by the Kenya government in 1989 following a rise in goitre rates. Before then, salt manufacturers fortified salt with iodine at their own will.

Reduced goitre

In a micro-nutrient levels survey carried out in 1994, total goitre rates had dropped to 16 percent while a 2004 National Iodine study done by KEMRI showed a reduction to 6 percent. Currently, 98 percent of the population consumes iodized salt.

Among manufacturers of cooking oil, only BIDCO produces fortified cooking oils. Even here, not all the brands are fortified.

In fortification processes, companies rely on processed micro-nutrients. Health experts say these are preferable because they are easily absorbed in the body.

Currently, more than 76 percent of children in Kenya suffer from Vitamin A deficiency that has resulted in cases of night blindness, low productivity and deaths in some cases.

The impact of the situation has seen the government turn to Vitamin A supplements that are offered for free at government facilities to pregnant women and children of between 6 months and 5 years every six months.

Ms Catherine Fitzgibbon who heads the Kenya programme at Save the Children UK says food fortification standards are an important way for governments to avail essential micro-nutrients to their populations.

However, it would make sense to accompany this with education on alternative ways of sourcing for the nutrients.

“Not everyone requires fortified food but through education on how to combine different foods one can get the required nutrients. In Kenya where majority live in poverty and cannot afford different foodstuffs, fortifying products that are consumed regularly is a solution,” she said.
This is what informs the focus to food fortification; micronutrient deficiencies contribute to morbidity and mortality rates, reduced productivity and as a result slow national development.

Other than increased health care costs due to resultant diseases, children do not reap maximum benefits from school as they often miss school to seek health care and have low concentration levels.

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