Global control of micronutrient deficiencies

Malnutrition is still the most serious threat to the health of the world population and the most important cause of infant mortality in the world. About one third of the population in developing countries is faced with micronutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Investing in solutions for these can produce many results, but to date the approach has been too fragmented and not sufficiently innovative. This is what Professor Michael Zimmerman propounds in his acceptance of the position of professor occupying an endowed chair in Micronutrients and health in developing countries at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Unilever sponsors his chair and is partner in his research.

In his inaugural lecture, "Global control of micronutrient deficiencies; divided they stand, united they fall", he argues for an integrated approach to the problem of hunger. This must be effected, in his opinion, by viewing deficiencies of the various micronutrients in a coherent way. There must also be attunement of the various strategies which have been pursued separately up to now. And finally there must be better collaboration between the different organisations – government, business community and science. A combined approach is more effective, he argues.

Professor Zimmerman thinks that traditional strategies are not enough, however. In addition, much effort must be invested in innovation. He points here to plant breeding or genetic modification – bio-fortification – to increase vitamin and mineral content and their absorption. Modifying the genes in rice, for example, can increase iron content and at the same time enhance iron absorption in the human body. Zimmerman also sees a great deal of potential in the application of nanotechnology in order to increase the solubility of micronutrients in water and thus lead to their greater absorption by the body. The human body is generally a poor absorber of ferric sulphate but good absorption of this substance can be achieved if the particle size of the substance can be reduced greatly, as Zimmermann has already demonstrated in an animal study.

Zimmerman expects that uniting traditional strategies with innovative new technologies can represent a breakthrough in the control of vitamin and mineral deficiency in foodstuffs.

Despite the great efforts made, programmes of governments and international organisations directed at separate solutions for such things as deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, iodine or zinc have had relatively little effect: Vitamin A deficiency is still a factor in the death of a million children a year, and iodine deficiency in mothers during pregnancy impairs the mental development of 18 million children a year.

According to Zimmerman, research shows that many of these deficiencies occur concurrently. Iodised salt, for instance, has little effect in areas where there are vitamin A and iron deficiencies. In his view, the best way of preventing various micronutrient deficiencies is a coherent and multi-facetted approach.

The same applies to the strategies for achieving this goal. These will not be particularly effective, in the opinion of Zimmerman, if separate efforts are made at adding vitamins and minerals to food (fortification), or through tablets or drinks in addition to food (supplementation), of through varied nutrition (dietary diversification). Although dietary diversification is the best long-term solution, fortification and supplementation are essential in the shorter term.

Michael Bruce Zimmermann (1958), who possesses both Swiss and American nationalities, studied food sciences at Berkeley, California and obtained his doctorate in medicine cum laude at the Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee (US). He has been working as lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Food Science and Nutrition at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) since 1997.

The chair of Professor Zimmerman and his assistant professor are sponsored by Unilever. This company is also funding three PhD students and six master scholarships, all for students from developing countries. A scientific collaboration between Unilever and Professor Zimmermann's group will also be established. This financial support and scientific collaboration are a result of the ambition to contribute to improved nutrition in developing countries, in particular by reducing micronutrient deficiencies through foods.

http://www.wur.nl

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