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There are over 56 million stunted children in Africa. Can fortified foods help?

Average read time: 4 minutes

Learn more on how Unilever has made fortification a priority.

Stunting in Children

It’s a distressing fact that young children the world over are just not getting the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. According to UNICEF, stunting affects 149 million children globally: ‘Stunting is the devastating result of poor nutrition in-utero and early childhood. Children suffering from stunting may never attain their full possible height and their brains may never develop to their full cognitive potential.’01

In Africa, 56.6 million children under five are stunted, and in South Africa alone, stunting affects 1.5 million (almost three out of 10) children.02 Even more distressing is that stunting cannot be reversed, and has serious long-term consequences in adulthood.03

‘Stunting’, in a nutshell, refers to a child who is too short for his or her age, and in children under five, it is associated with an elevated risk of child morbidity, as well as poor cognitive and psychomotor development,04 reduced productive capacity, poor health, and an increased risk of degenerative diseases.05

Food fortification (deliberately enriching widely consumed foods with critical micronutrients) is one of the interventions that can reduce the prevalence of stunting in children. A recent study took a close look at the adoption of fortified foods in Zimbabwean households: does adopting food fortification reduce the proportion of stunted children in a household, asked the authors, and does the gender of the head of the household (who usually determines both access and preparation of fortified foods) have any impact?

In Zimbabwe, the proportion of children under five years old who were stunted in 2018 was 26%, say the authors of the study. And in June 2017, the Government of Zimbabwe made it mandatory for major local food manufacturers to fortify processed staple foods with micronutrients. (This is the case in South Africa as well: in 2003 the fortification of certain types of maize meal and wheat flour became mandatory.)06

Among the significant findings of the study was that food fortification reduces the proportion of stunted children in the household, and that female-headed households which adopt food fortification are more able to reduce the proportion of stunted children in their households than their male counterparts.

These results, say the authors, ‘highlight the need for policymakers to actively promote food fortification, as such interventions are likely to contribute to the reduction of stunting’.07

How Unilever has made fortification a priority

According to the World Health Organization, two billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiency, but fortifying foods with small, safe doses of essential micronutrients such as vitamins A and D, iodine, iron, and zinc is a simple way to tackle this deficiency.

Actively promoting food fortification is something we at Unilever are passionate about because we’re committed to producing more fortified foods. We want to make it easier for consumers to increase the number of nourishing foods in their diets, and the nutritious ingredients in many of our products provide the micronutrients, protein, or fibre that people need as part of a balanced diet. Read more here.

As one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, we’re keenly aware of our role when it comes to helping people get the nutrients they need, at an affordable price. We’re committed to doubling the number of products with positive nutrients (vegetables, fruits, proteins, or micronutrients like vitamins, zinc, iron, and iodine) globally by 2025. And by 2022, Unilever has committed to provide more than 200 billion servings with at least one of the five key micronutrients (Vitamin A, D, iodine, iron, and zinc). Read more here.

At Unilever, we’re also committed to empowering women, particularly mothers, who are crucial decision makers. When they are afforded the same resources as men, women are a dynamic force against hunger and malnutrition. Empowering women and girls as leaders encourages them to fight against hunger and drive food security change in their own communities.

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