Food-based approaches improve nutrition through increasing the availability, access to and consumption of a nutritionally adequate diet from a variety of foods. This approach, developed within a right to food framework, builds on the primary importance of the food and agriculture sector for improving diets, alleviating household food insecurity and raising levels of nutrition.
Food production matters
Agriculture is the main source of food, employment and income for the majority of the poor. Without growth in other sectors, agriculture is the primary sector for achieving improvements in food and nutrition security. Food-based approaches stress the importance of making food and agricultural policies more nutritionally relevant and nutrition-sensitive. They do so by looking at their potential impact on people’s livelihoods, on the way they feed themselves and their families, and on the amount of time and energy spent doing so. For the very poor, this usually includes supporting the production, access to and consumption of a range of foods including animal source foods, which are good sources of protein, fat and micronutrients to supplement a high carbohydrate staple diet. Home and school gardens, small livestock production, aquaculture and marketing policies which keep the prices of such foods at affordable levels are examples of food-based nutrition improvement initiatives.
Consumption and dietary diversification
Attention needs to be given to increasing the production of foods and to its consumption, ensuring that the poor have access to foods adequate in quantity (in terms of calories) and adequate in quality (in terms of variety, diversity, nutrient content and safety) in order to achieve a nutritionally balanced diet. However, because diets high in carbohydrates but low in nutrients are commonly found among the poorest in developing countries, food-based strategies often need to increase both overall food intakes as well as broaden dietary diversity. By placing the entire food chain under a “nutrition lens”, areas for intervention can be identified, such as expanding and diversifying food production, improving food processing, preservation and preparation of foods, reducing losses and waste and assessing intervention impact on dietary consumption.
Fortification of foods is the addition of micronutrients to foods at a level higher than that found in the original food. Building on the impressive results of the reduction of iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) through the fortification of table salt with iodine, industrial fortification of foods can be used to reach a large number of people. But not all target groups can be reached this way. Population groups on the margins of the economy who either cannot afford to purchase fortified staples or who are too remote to be reached by them, tend to be most in need of the fortified micronutrients, but are the last to be reached. At the local level, novel approaches and technologies for fortifying food include using tablets, sprinkles and fat-based spreads. These technologies have their limitations in sustainability and in coverage. While food fortification can provide a valuable contribution to adequate nutrition, when properly targeted and where existing food systems fail to provide adequate levels of nutrients, fortification should be seen to support dietary improvement rather than as an alternative strategy.