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Blog: The sum of hidden hunger

At the moment, humanity is facing a major health crisis – a so-called ‘hidden hunger’, a condition of micronutrient deficiency standing for the lack of intake of micronutrients in our daily diets. An example of a common micronutrient deficiency is ‘iodine deficiency’. According to data obtained by the World Health Organization (WHO)[1], 2 billion people worldwide, including 45% of the European population, are affected by this condition. How this emerging health threat could be mitigated? In this blog, we contemplate about different possibilities, including the use of crops biofortified with iodine.

I What is iodine deficiency?

Iodine deficiency[2] is the result of the insufficient iodine intake via our diets. This has been the problem for the humanity since ages, as it is quite difficult to consume enough iodine without using certain foods/ingredients as iodine carriers. Therefore, most countries fortify different types of feed and food with iodine. A shortage of iodine intake affects the normal functioning of the thyroid gland, namely production of the thyroid hormones that are needed for normal growth and development of the nerve system. The symptoms of the iodine deficiency[3] manifested in humans include enlargement of the thyroid (e.g. goiter) and hypothyroidism. During pregnancy and in the first years of the infants’ life, a shortage of iodine can cause a decreased cognitive development.

II Strategies for mitigating iodine deficiency

II.1 Universal salt iodization

The global strategy used so far by the WHO for keeping the iodine deficiency under control is the universal salt iodization (USI)[4]. In a nutshell, USI has been used to iodize salt for human and livestock consumption.

However, USI has proved to be an unreliable strategy. This is mostly due to the volatile nature of inorganic iodine. Namely, significant losses of iodine under high temperatures were observed in the food processing. The same applies to storage, transport and cooking of the food products that were previously iodized in the food production process.

For this reason, new strategies, fitting national eating patterns and concerns, might have to be developed to address the issue of iodine deficiency.  For instance, fortification of the certain types of foods widely consumed by the majority of consumers in certain national markets with iodine. 

II.2 Iodine biofortification

One of the new strategies has been reaching its heyday recently. Its name is iodine biofortification. Biofortification is the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices[5]. As such, biofortification is a cost-effective way of improving human diet, especially because iodine is already bioavailable in food and can be easily assimilated further.

However, although scientifically proven as a reliable strategy, iodine biofortification is facing a communication crisis as its end-products could be framed as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by the majority of consumers and their organizations alike. Against this background, it is important to stress out that both conventional breeding techniques and modern biotechnology could be used in the process of fortifying crops with the essential micronutrients. This said, there is a strong possibility that biofortification as a technique does not fall within the scope of the GMO Directive (e.g. Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment).

Unfortunately, due to the potential of opening ‘Pandora’s box’ among the majority of consumers by placing a biofortified food product on the market, many innovative start-ups and unicorn companies are still hesitant to penetrate the market. This blog should help them understand the need to communicate better their intentions, but also to be aware about the status of their end-products. Namely, the biofortified food products could be determined as novel foods[6]. Therefore, companies aiming to place these products on the Single Market should first check if their products fall within the scope of the Novel Food Regulation.

And that is where Schuttelaar & Partners come in! We can help your company with strategic advice on how to position yourself on the market and in communicating your biofortified products towards your consumers. Additionally, if you are unsure about the novel food status of your product, we can help you by providing scientific and legal assessment of its status.  

For more information, please contact Gavrilo Nikolic