More than half of pre-school age children and over two-thirds of non-pregnant women of reproductive age worldwide have micronutrient deficiencies, according to the findings of a new scientific review published in The Lancet.
The pooled analysis of biomarker data showed 372 million preschool-aged children and 1.2 billion women aged 15-49 years are deficient in iron, zinc, and vitamin A or iron, zinc, and folate respectively. These micronutrients were selected for the analysis because prevalence of deficiencies is known to be high in many countries. However, deficiencies in other micronutrients may also exist.
Deficient diets are damaging health outcomes
The findings have significant population health implications. People exposed to these deficiencies can experience compromised immune systems as well as an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Children who are malnourished can suffer from constrained physical and mental development. As the researchers note: “Micronutrient deficiencies compromise immune systems, hinder child growth and development, and affect human potential worldwide.”
The study was led by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Micronutrient Forum (MNF). Following publication, GAIN and MNF said there was now an ‘urgent’ need for action. The researchers focused on women and young children because current data on other groups, including school children, adolescents, boys, men, pregnant women and older adults is insufficient. According to GAIN and MNF, this means the widely held belief that there are 2 billion people globally suffering with micronutrient deficiency is likely to be a ‘major underestimate’.
Globally, the researchers identified South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa as the worse hit areas. However, malnutrition is not a problem that is exclusive to the developing world. Micronutrient deficiencies are widespread in high income countries as well. In the region defined as Europe and Central Asia, micronutrient deficiencies are believed to impact 45% of pre-school children and 68% of reproductive age non-pregnant women.
Among measures identified by GAIN and MNF to address the problem were the fortification of everyday foods with vitamins and minerals, the biofortification of crops to boost micronutrient content and the development of supplementation programmes targeting pregnant women and young children.
Calls for policy intervention over concerns food prices will exasperate deficiencies
Responding to the findings, the IADSA – the global alliance for food supplements – offered its support for policy measures and interventions that would tackle macronutrient deficiencies and improve population health. “The significance of this review cannot be overstated. It indicates that micronutrient deficiencies are more widespread than we originally feared,” said Cynthia Rousselot, IADSA’s Director of Technical & Regulatory Affairs.
Because the problems that exist ‘continue to grow’, Rousselot told FoodNavigator the issue ‘requires some serious thinking from policy makers’ as well as other stakeholders, including industry. She fears that with the current cost of living crisis and high food inflation, the challenge of ‘hidden hunger’ is likely to become more acute. “Governments are generally aware of the challenge, but the problem is that the major policy tool is one of continuing to encourage populations to take a balanced diet. The data is showing that this is just not being achieved. And with food prices increasing, there are fears that less and less people will achieve the balanced diet.”
Micronutrient deficiencies among preschool-aged children and women of reproductive age worldwide: a pooled analysis of individual-level data from population-representative surveys
Authors: Stevens, G. A., Beal, T., et al.