Could science improve the nutrition of millions?

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1. A big problem not just for the hungry

The word ‘malnourishment’ conjures images of natural disasters, droughts and children with swollen bellies. But malnourishment is not just a lack of calories. It can also be caused by not having enough vitamins, minerals, and protein.

The absence of these key nutrients has severe effects on the body. Lack of protein causes stunted growth in children, decreased immunity and weakening of the heart and respiratory system. Iron deficiency anaemia contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths and 50 million people worldwide have some degree of mental impairment caused by iodine deficiency.

World malnourishment is a complex problem, but science may offer some solutions. Scientists have explored many ways to improve people's diets, from adding nutrients to food that people already eat, to creating new types of food in the laboratory.

2. Who are the malnourished?

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Malnourishment is a problem on a global scale, yet often for very different reasons. Click on the labels to find out why these different areas are affected.

3. Tiny nutrients, huge effects

For the body to function properly, it needs not only enough calories, but protein, vitamins and minerals as well. In children this is particularly important for growth and development.

Protein

Protein is an essential building block in the body. A chronic absence in the diet leads to fatigue and loss of muscle mass. In children, protein deficiency damages physical and mental development. It also affects the immune system, as the body is unable to produce enough antibodies.

Vitamin A

Not enough vitamin A in the diet causes blindness and weakens the immune system. In developing countries this increases the risk of dying from common conditions such as diarrhoea, measles and malaria.

Iron

Iron deficiency causes anaemia - a lack of red blood cells - that makes people feel tired and lethargic. Pregnant women with severe or untreated anaemia have a higher risk of complications before and after birth.

Iodine

Iodine is needed to keep the thyroid gland working. The thyroid gland regulates all the hormones in the body, so low iodine can disrupt normal hormone function. In children, low levels of iodine can lead to poor brain development. Research has shown that even mild deficiencies affect IQ negatively. Severe deficiencies can cause mental retardation and congenital abnormalities.

4. Improving nutrients scientifically

Chronic malnourishment is a complex, global issue that has severe consequences for the health of those affected. Scientists are looking at a range of approaches to help super-charge food with better nutrients.

Fortified foods

Adding micronutrients to staple foods such as sugar and cereal during processing has been a key way to improve the nutrition of large populations. However, in very poor communities, not everyone will have access to these foods.

Scientists are now developing bio-fortified foods such as Golden Rice, which has been genetically engineered to contain Vitamin A. It can be given to people who rely on rice as a staple food and grown locally.

Insects

Insects are an incredibly good source of animal protein, fat, vitamin, fibre and mineral content. It is estimated that they already form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. Thailand, for example, already has 20,000 insect farms. New ways to cultivate and process them could see insects replace birds and mammals as sources of dietary protein.

Synthetic meat

As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for meat, which requires enormous resources to cultivate. As an alternative, scientists have grown meat in a laboratory using stem cells extracted from a cow. Early results have produced very small yields, lacking in flavour. But the potential to synthetically cultivate meat protein from a tiny biopsy could be a scalable solution to ever-stretched resources.

5. What would you eat?

Scientists are proposing radical approaches to improve the nutrition of simple foods and tackle global malnourishment. Which of these solutions would you eat?

Biofortified food

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Biofortified food

Foods like Golden rice increase nutrient intake, but genetically modified foods are controversial. Some people are uneasy consuming GM food.

Insects

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Insects

In most Western countries, people view eating insects with disgust; this attitude has made insects a neglected topic of agricultural research.

Lab grown meat

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Lab grown meat

Synthetic meat is in the early stages of development and currently extremely expensive to produce.