Saturday, 3 June, 2023

Better Food Choices For Better Nutrition

Monica Pradhan


The World Food Day is being observed today with the theme “Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.” The occasion reminds us of the bitter fact that the countries are still fighting against the hunger and food crisis roiling the poorer section of humanity across the globe. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations started marking the World Food Day since 1981, reaffirming the global solidarity towards strengthening prevailing food system to ensure better nutrition. But the celebration is taking place amidst a paradox. While a vast majority of people suffer from an acute food shortage, a few privileged ones have multiple food choices on the menu.

More than 2 billion people worldwide are still deprived of regular access to sufficient nutritious and safe food. With a speculated global food shortage to feed the projected 10 billion populations by 2050, biotechnology along with food processing are being harnessed to scale up and diversify commercial food production. Urbanisation, expanding consumer choices and wider access to processed food has led to a gradual change in food habits. Nothing can be compared to the freshness, aesthetic appeal and nutrition of a freshly harvested produce. However, it is a far cry for millions of urbanites, who rush through the day managing numerous responsibilities and hence resort to processed food for major parts of their meals.
In recent times, junk foods which are related to packaged processed ones are often debated in the public forums. This gives an impression of an unhealthy food choice, which dwindles the ongoing technological innovations in food science and increases confusion among consumers over food choices. Food ingredients permitted for processed food, level of food additives and product specifications are guided by national specifications that are in line with the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius or ‘food code’. While the nutrient content of major raw materials are affected, to some extent, during processing and storage, convenience and enhanced shelf life of processed foods has been found outweighing the limitations. Above all, the safety and sanctity of packaged processed food in Nepal is guarded by its mandatory compliance to Food Act, 1966 and Food Rules, 1970.
Furthermore, processed foods are potential carriers for micronutrient fortificants. Food insecurity and malnutrition, especially the deficiency of vitamin and minerals is still a deterrent to development in Nepal. Implementations of mandatory fortification of salt with iodine since 1999 and wheat flour with iron, folic acid and Vitamin A since 2011 are milestone in ensuring nutritious foods. Today packaged processed fortified instant noodles, biscuits, cereal beverage, baby foods, fruit juices, soups, breakfast cereals, etc. are widely available in the market. Hence, rather than undermining the unlimited potentialities of processed food, there is need to have a stringent food quality control system in place and foster healthy eating habits among people.
With a vision to strengthen food technology in Nepal, food technology education was introduced in 1973. Many institutions have launched advanced studies in nutrition, food technology (specialisation in dairy, meat), biotechnology, food microbiology and related fields across the country. Many food industries have been implementing international management systems like ISO 9001 (quality management system), ISO 22000 (food safety management system), ISO 17025 (general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories), HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point), TQM (total quality anagement), etc. in their attempt to validate their compliance to good practices, food safety and quality conformance.
Providing technical support to food processing industries for good manufacturing practice is one of the key interventions outlined in the ongoing Nepal Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan (MSNP-II) 2018-2022. With the relentless coordinated approach of government, development partners, private sector and civil society, the last two decades have witnessed remarkable reduction in stunting in children, reduced prevalence of anaemia among vulnerable groups and phasing out of Iodine Deficiency Disorders in Nepal. The focus ahead is to uplift Nepal from the status of Least Developed Countries (LDC) to lower middle income group countries.
The introduction of Right to Food and Food Sovereignty Act, 2018 in line with Article 36 of the constitution has opened up avenues for setting up laws and bylaws to strengthen the ongoing efforts, which will go a long way towards fulfilment of the Goal 1 (No Poverty) and Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) as laid out by United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. Introduction of nutrition ratings on food packaging can ease consumer food choices. Food and nutrition education needs to be incorporated early on in school curriculum so that children could develop their food choices.

Healthier option
Innovations backed by research ensure food safety and quality. Food processing sector should be made more accountable to consumers. The use of packed processed food as a meal substitute should be minimised. Introduction of healthier options like the use of green vegetables, fruits, whole grains, egg, lean meats, fish, milk products, etc. for a well-balanced meal would make one feel less guilty of their choices.
All major stakeholders including intellectual diasporas should emphasise a unified approach to achieve sustainability in nutrition. The COVID-19 crisis has compelled us to reflect on our food choices and adopt a practical approach to a healthier lifestyle. The role of food for nutrition and increased immunity was never so prominent before. Above all, the choice to spend is personal and hence, the consciousness to make good food choices rests entirely upon oneself. Every form of food has a role in the human body. With its regulated consumption, we can make a difference by contributing towards improving the overall wellness.

(Pradhan is a food technologist.