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Can food innovation help defeat hunger and malnutrition?

Average read time: 3 minutes

Why is it that, despite rapid advances in technology, so many people in the world are still hungry in the 21st century? And how are scientists working with industry, agriculture, and governments to tackle hunger and undernourishment?

Plant-forward eating

In 2015, the United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal call to action to end poverty, promote prosperity and protect the planet.01 SDG Goal 2 is ‘Zero Hunger’, and its aims include ending hunger and malnutrition, improving nutrition, and ensuring sustainable agriculture and food security by 2030.02

But have any of these SDG targets been achieved, and what headway has been made since 2015?

Slow progress, exacerbated by Covid-19

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation (FAO), ‘the world has not been generally progressing either towards ensuring access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food for all people all year round…or to eradicating all forms of malnutrition.’03

In 2020, between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger, says the FAO. This was an increase of an estimated 118 million people (46 million of them in Africa) from 2019.

Worryingly, the prevalence of hunger worldwide has increased due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food security and nutrition, say researchers.04 And with less than 10 years to go to the UN’s 2030 End Hunger deadline, the progress in achieving Goal 2 has been painstakingly slow.

Can food innovation help?

A new paper (Mensi et al, 2021) highlights this halting progress and concludes that existing and new practical food innovations are crucial to achieving SDG Target 2.2 (which refers specifically to ending all forms of malnutrition, including stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age).05

Increased efforts are needed, say the authors, to improve collaboration between researchers, the industry, policymakers, and consumers, and to put existing knowledge into practice.

Some of this knowledge includes investigating the potential of neglected and underutilised crops to combat nutritional deficiencies and using ‘functional’ foods to tackle both under and over-nutrition.

Functional foods are generally regarded as those foods that have a positive effect on health that goes beyond their inherent nutritional value. For example, they may contain additional nutrients or other health-influencing constituents that have a protective effect.

Functional foods include processed foods. And processing, say the authors of the paper, is needed to enhance nutrient bio accessibility and alter food matrices (‘food matrices’ means the nutrient and non-nutrient components of foods and their molecular relationships).

What Unilever’s doing to tackle malnutrition

As one of the world’s biggest food manufacturers, Unilever is in a unique position to drive food innovation and technology and to use science and innovation responsibly to drive sustainable living.

Innovation not only creates great new products that consumers love, but it also results in advances that help build a brighter future for the planet and ensure food security in decades to come.

A cornerstone of our commitment to making nutritious food available to all is working to improve the nutritional quality of our products, and so at Unilever, we’ve made fortification a strategic priority.

Every single day, we sell more than 164 million servings of fortified products, including seasonings, bouillons, soups, sauces, tea, and ice cream. These servings include at least 15% of the recommended daily amount for nutrients, in line with South African R416 regulations. We offer fortified foods at an affordable price, and develop products using good ingredients like vegetables, fruits, dairy, and vegetable oils to support more diverse diets and promote nutritious cooking.

By 2022, we’re aiming to provide more than 200 billion servings with at least one of the five key micronutrients: Vitamin A, Vitamin D, iodine, iron, and zinc.

Knorrox, one of Unilever’s iconic South African brands, is now fortifying its soy-based products with zinc, protein, and fibre in order to deliver top-quality nutrients to consumers.

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