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Nutrient loss leaves billions of people at risk of “hidden hunger”

While efforts to improve access to proper nutrition in the developing world have improved over the years, there are still about 2 billion people on the planet who are affected by micronutrient malnutrition – also known as “hidden hunger.” Currently, the United Nations’ second Sustainable Development Goal aims to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030. But new research has found that we may need a different approach to assessing the nutrient sufficiency of the global food system.

In the first study to quantitatively map the flow of energy, protein, fat, essential amino acids, and micronutrients from “field-to-fork” on a global level, a report published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems highlights the complexities that are part of delivering a balanced food system.

“There are two main issues with how we currently talk about food systems,” says Hannah Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, who led the study. “The first is that we focus our measure of food security in terms of calories (energy), when micronutrient malnutrition (‘hidden hunger’) affects more than ~2 billion people across the world. The second issue is that aspects of our food system are reported in tonnes or kilograms, and it’s very hard to put these numbers in the context of how many people this could feed.”

The researchers aimed to assess the full food system by looking at average nutrients per person across a wide array of nutrients that are necessary for good health. Through using food balance and nutrient composition datasheets from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to quantify digestible protein, fat, calories, amino acids and micronutrients across the supply chain, they calculated food and nutrient losses from FAO regional waste data.

Their results showed that all nutrients – not just calories – exceeded average requirements.

“Previous studies have shown that we produce much more than we need in terms of calories (5,500-6,000 kilocalories per person per day), but I was not expecting this for protein and essential micronutrients. Some nutrients were up to five times the average requirement,” says Ritchie.

However, although nutrients exceeded requirements, food wastage and nutrient losses in the supply chain made it so by the time some nutrients reached households, they barely made the nutrition requirements.

This would be okay in a perfectly equitable food system,” says Ritchie. “But with large inequalities in food availability, we know that many people will be deficient in several essential nutrients.”

One of the biggest complexities is that these losses don’t happen in the same place for each nutrient. The most significant micronutrient losses occur in post-harvest waste of fruits and vegetables, while the largest losses of energy and protein happen in the allocation of crops to animal feed and biofuel. Beyond this one complication, there are many other issues that arise when attempting to remedy nutrient loss.

“This study is just the start,” says Professor David Reay, a supporting researcher from the University of Edinburgh. “In the future, this replicable framework can be used to map food pathways for specific regions and countries. Our hope is that governments and development agencies can use it to assess food security risks and develop locally specific solutions.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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