Today about one in nine people worldwide (795 million) are undernourished, two-thirds of whom reside in Asia, according to the United Nations. Tackling global hunger, nutrition and food security has become such a pressing challenge for the world community that it is considered to be one of the top three priorities under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
With a growing world population and rising affluence, coupled with increasing consumption and depleting natural resources, providing enough food—and food of good nutritional value too, are causes for concern.
Of particular concern is the number of children around the world that are suffering from the lack of nutrition. Nearly half (45 percent) of deaths in children under five, equivalent to 3.1 million children, each year is caused by poor nutrition, while one in four suffers from stunting. About half of all stunted children live in Asia. In developing countries, about 100 million children are underweight, reported the World Food Programme.
Conversely obesity is an equally worrying trend—more than 1.9 billion adults are overweight, 600 million of which are obese. Not just adults, 42 million children under age five are found to be overweight and obese.
These staggering statistics highlight the urgency in addressing the dual burden of malnutrition, which if not intervened will undoubtedly have damaging effects on social, economic and public health systems. It thus becomes crucial for the food manufacturers and stakeholders of the food and nutrition ecosystem to find innovative ways to address the burden of this escalating public health threat.
The industry has already begun to take action and is making good progress. Regulatory bodies, governments, food and agricultural businesses and civil societies have collectively been taking necessary measures. The tightening of food regulations, the increased advocacy and health education, and the expanding category lines of healthier food products at present are just a few examples of steps being taken in the right direction.
The Role Of Milk And Dairy In Nutrition
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), milk is recognised as a source of important nutrients. A report published by FAO in 2013 recommends milk and dairy as part of a balanced diet: “Milk and dairy products can be an important source of dietary energy, protein and fat… they are also rich in micronutrients critical for fighting malnutrition in developing countries where the diets of poor people are often starch- or cereal-based and lack diversity.”
The report also called on governments to make milk and dairy products more accessible, especially to the most vulnerable section of their populations. This is especially crucial in regions or countries where milk or dairy consumption is unconventional and/or not part of the culture.
Good nutrition in childhood is fundamental for healthy growth and development, and aspects of nutritional status can be influenced before the age of five, but cannot be reversed afterwards. Stunting, which is related to poor cognitive performance, obesity and obesity-related health issues such as Type-2 diabetes are prominent examples of health problems which are associated with poor nutrition in childhood.
Milk and dairy provide the building blocks (macronutrients), such as proteins, for healthy growth and development. If not intrinsically present in the product, dairy products are often fortified with micronutrients to target deficiencies.
To truly comprehend the scale of the dual burden of malnutrition, FrieslandCampina established a regional nutrition study, the Southeast Asian Nutrition Survey, to track the dietary and bio status of more than 17,000 children aged between six months to 12 years in Southeast Asia. The research has shown that countries in Southeast Asia collectively face a double burden of malnutrition, with the severity of the problem varying per country—deficiencies in micronutrients and vitamin D were common issues in all of the countries where the survey was conducted.
The FAO advocates school milk programmes for improving child nutrition especially in communities where nutrition is not readily available or accessible and FrieslandCampina is also an active endorser and participant in these initiatives. They believe that milk can play an important role in addressing the nutritional deficiencies highlighted in our research.
Successful programmes, such as those conducted by FrieslandCampina and its partners, are being implemented in the region and are particularly popular in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and India. According to the Dairy Reporter, studies have shown improved nutrition among children where such school milk programmes are being conducted.
Private-Public Partnerships Essential To Tackle Health And Nutrition Issues
Private-public partnerships will be central to the successes of industry making a significant impact on the challenge of food and nutrition security. The private sector represents key players in these alliances to make sure that good sources of nutrition are accessible and affordable to those in need.
In addition, preventing and combatting obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is a shared responsibility of consumers, governments, non-governmental organisations, as well as food producers and food suppliers. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises the complexity and multifactorial causes of obesity and NCDs, and believes that solutions require all stakeholders to work together to develop holistic, impactful and sustainable solutions.
In 2010, the WHO members endorsed a set of recommendations on marketing of foods and beverages to children. While not legally binding, the onus is on the industry to align with WHO to:
- • Restrict the marketing of foods high in fat, sugar, salt to children;
- • Provide nutrition information to consumers;
- • Promote balanced diets and physical activities; and
- • Reformulate where possible, based on scientific and technological feasibility and accessibility of alternative solutions, and bring to market new products which support the goal of improving the healthfulness of foods and beverages.
Whilst ensuring that products taste good, manufacturers have to be mindful of keeping total calories and sugar levels within boundaries. In this way, food will be marketed responsibly—an equally important factor to helping consumers make informed dietary choices. The challenge is to engage consumers in a way that is meaningful to them and that can elicit changes in behaviour.
There are various education programmes from national government-driven campaigns, such as the Steps for Good campaign organised by the Health Promotion Board in Singapore, to regional activities driven by public-private partnerships. Another example is FrieslandCampina’s partnerships with governments across Southeast Asia and the Junior National Basketball Association to conduct education outreach programmes to consumers, promoting the value of balanced diets and physical exercise.
In Asia, the trade body Food Industry Asia facilitates these public-private partnerships around taxation, labelling and reformulation and education programmes to create value and impact in the region’s communities.
The primary role of food producers and manufacturers is not just selling products, but also providing better nutrition and educating children and their parents on how to lead healthy, active lifestyles. All parties in the food manufacture chain are accountable, from design and development to production and promotion, from the way they behave in the countries in which they do business, and to the way in which they contribute towards safeguarding nutrition security for the future generation.