Addressing undernutrition

Undernutrition is caused by a range of socio-economic issues and affects people all over the world. We aim to make an impact through advocacy and the fortification of our products.

Undernutrition is a widespread problem

Undernutrition is recognised as an important global health issue. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world are undernourished.

Investing in nutrition gives more children the chance to reach their full potential and help create a more prosperous future for society. This generates returns of $30 for every $1 invested and can translate into an increase of 2–3% of a country’s GDP each year, the World Bank calculates.

Micronutrient deficiencies for iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc are the most widespread form of undernutrition. These affect the health of millions of people worldwide. These deficiencies are usually due to insufficient access to critical food groups, such as fruit, vegetables and meat products. This makes people more vulnerable to disease, impairs their mental development and decreases their ability to earn a living.

Adequate nutrition is especially important during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood. It is fundamental to a child’s development — to be resistant to disease, to grow properly and to do well at school. We have made a particular commitment to making children’s first 1,000 days a good start to life.

Added nutrients for health

Our brands can play a role in tackling undernutrition and many of our products already make an important contribution to the micronutrient intakes of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

In our Sustainable Living Plan, we have identified that one of our challenges for the future is to provide products for more people in more places in a way that is affordable and commercially viable.

We produce many products that are fortified. These include: margarines and spreads fortified with vitamins A and D; bouillons with iodised salt; and iodised salt itself.

We have been working to enhance the micronutrient fortification of our products.

More fortification examples

These new product launches build on our existing portfolio of fortified products:

  • Rama/BlueBand margarines are fortified with vitamins A and D, and also contain vitamin E naturally present in the vegetable oils. In some countries, some of our products are also fortified with vitamins B6, B12, folic acid and niacin. Rama Idea!, launched in 2006, contains nutrients that support children’s mental development. This is an issue of interest to parents everywhere.
  • In Latin America, our Maizena instant porridges are fortified with iron, zinc and vitamins A and B. AdeS, our soy-based drink, is fortified with vitamins A, C and E, iron, zinc and calcium.
  • In India, our Amaze/Kissan NutriSmart powdered drinks and snacks are fortified with iron, iodine, zinc, calcium, vitamins A, B2, B6, B12 and C, folic acid and omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
  • In the Philippines, our SIGLAKAS instant hot school meals are fortified with iron and calcium and are used for local feeding programmes in collaboration with health authorities.
  • Our iodine-fortified Annapurna salt has been helping combat iodine deficiency since 1997. Iodine deficiency can contribute towards serious conditions such as mental retardation, low IQ and goitre, and cause stillbirths and congenital abnormalities. Annapurna iodised salt is available in India, Ghana, Nigeria and Malawi.
  • We also sell bouillon with iodised salt.

Investigating the role of nutrition in children’s development

We are running an extensive international research programme to better understand the role of nutrition in the physical and mental development of children, and to help determine the benefits of key nutrients for children’s growth. This helps us identify ways to improve our products to provide additional benefits to consumers.

For example, our research in Indonesia showed improvements in verbal learning and memory in well-nourished school-aged children through micronutrients and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.

In 2007, Hindustan Unilever launched Kissan Amaze in India – the first food in the country to be designed specifically with nutrients children need for their mental development, including iron, iodine and zinc. Amaze was the result of four years of development, through collaboration between our product development teams in India and the Netherlands. We contributed to a study to define the impact of this micronutrient mix on cognition in children, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009.

A study in India showed that after a year of consuming an Amaze protein-energy snack, fortified with omega-3 and micronutrients, children grew taller and performed better than expected in cognitive tests. Additionally, maize-flour fortified with the right type of iron resulted in a 91% reduction of iron deficiency.

The study also investigated the effect of micronutrients with or without omega-3 fatty acids on infectious disease morbidity, such as respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea in schoolchildren. After 12 months of supplementation, children consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA and DHA) had a lower risk of illness compared to children consuming foods low in omega-3 fatty acids (ALA only). More research is needed to confirm these effects.

Supporting university research

During 2011, Unilever completed its five-year support programme for the Micronutrients and International Health Chair at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The programme focused on research into micronutrient deficiencies in the developing world. We funded three PhD and six masters-level scholarships for students from developing and emerging countries. This will help them to become future nutrition experts in their home countries, and thus contribute to finding effective solutions for the issues around maternal and child nutrition.

During its five years, the programme built a strong academic foundation with over 60 scientific papers, including articles in the Lancet and Nature. This research not only improved the scientific community’s understanding of micronutrients, it also offered important insights for Unilever’s own R&D efforts.

Increasing the reach of fortified foods

In developing and emerging markets our aim is to offer fortified foods at an affordable price to bring them within the reach of as many people as possible. However, producing and distributing low-cost products and getting an economically sustainable margin is difficult. Our challenge is to reach more people, in more places, in a way that is economically viable. We are working hard to find ways to do this.

Part of the solution is to work in partnership and we are actively engaged in public-private partnerships to further our efforts.

Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM)

The Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM) started in 2010 as a partnership between the Dutch government, GAIN, Unilever, AkzoNobel, DSM, Wageningen University and ICCO. The objective of AIM is to reduce malnutrition and food insecurity for 100 million low-income consumers by 2015 in Africa. It seeks to achieve this in the following ways:

  • Making high-quality nutritious food products available and affordable to vulnerable populations, especially women and children
  • Building on local systems with local partners, piloting business models, establishing strong evidence, and introducing nutrition in local value chains.

The initial focus was on six countries in Africa; Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Ghana. In February 2012, the AIM partnership decided to broaden the country base to any of the 60 countries with an interest for Dutch Foreign Affairs policy. In addition, new partners joined AIM during 2012. These included Rabobank Foundation, AMREF Flying Doctors NL, Rijk Zwaan, Spar International, Dadtco, Friesland Campina, BoP Innovation Centre, SNV and Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP).

In 2011, we sponsored a feasibility study to build capacity of the Kenya Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute, together with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Wageningen University. The partners GAIN, WSUP and Unilever were successful in getting sponsorship from Aqua for All to perform a market study into the use of water kiosks or door-to-door selling of clean water combined with nutritional and hygiene products.

Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

We are chair of the Business Alliance of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a consortium of UN organisations, major NGOs and private-sector organisations. GAIN seeks to improve health through the elimination of vitamin and mineral deficiencies using food fortification. GAIN is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank Institute. The GAIN Business Alliance aims to create a common understanding of the challenges and opportunities of food fortification and the role of the public and private sector in combating micronutrient deficiencies in developing countries.

“Together for Child Vitality” to Project Laser Beam

From 2007 to 2010 we worked with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to reduce hunger for school children in developing countries through WFP’s school meals programme. School meals encourage children to attend school and help them to concentrate on their studies, which in the long term acts as an investment in their future and helps to lift them out of poverty.

Through this partnership, WFP delivered around 60 million school meals to 60,000–80,000 children a year in the partnership’s seven beneficiary countries (Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka). This success was achieved through a number of initiatives, including flagship events such as End Hunger: Walk the World, a fundraising event held during World Food Week in October, and cause-related marketing campaigns in ten countries by brands such as Rama and Blue Band.

In 2010, WFP became one of the five global partners of the Unilever Foundation, and since then we have continued our support for WFP’s school meals programmes through the Project Laser Beam partnership, in complement to the other pillars (Water, Health & Hygiene and Livelihoods).

Providing daily school meals for children is just the first step; through these meals, we also have the opportunity to offer the nutrients that are essential for children's growth and health. We have supported WFP in a review of the nutrients that school meals deliver. In 2010 we published a joint study on the nutritional status of school-age children in developing and emerging countries in the peer-reviewed Food & Nutrition Bulletin* from the United Nations University.

*The nutritional status of school-aged children: why should we care? Best C, Neufingerl N, van Geel L, van den Briel T and Osendarp S in Food Nutrition Bulletin 2010 Sept, 31(3) p.400-17

Project Laser Beam

The Unilever Foundation is partnering with the World Food Programme (WFP) on Project Laser Beam, a public-private partnership that aims to create a scalable, replicable and sustainable model to improve nutrition, health, and livelihoods focusing on Bangladesh and Indonesia. WFP, Unilever and many other partners, such as Mondelēz International, Inc (formerly Kraft Foods Inc.), DSM and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) have made a joint commitment through to 2015 to make progress toward the first Millennium Development Goal – “eradicating poverty and hunger” – by encompassing a holistic approach to combat child malnutrition.

The partnership with WFP has a long history. Between 2007 and 2010 we supported WFP’s school meals programmes under the umbrella of the project “Together for Child Vitality” (see below). Project Laser Beam became the next step in our partnership with WFP, one of the five partner organisations of the Unilever Foundation. The five-year agreement was signed at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2011. At the same time, Unilever CEO Paul Polman accepted WFP’s Champion Against Hunger Award in recognition of our work on child nutrition.

Project Laser Beam emphasizes a holistic approach to combat child undernutrition and focuses on four pillars:

  • Food: providing daily school meals for children and promoting good nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life
  • Water: providing clean drinking water
  • Health &Hygiene: promoting good hand-washing behaviour and improving primary health services.
  • Livelihoods: creating sustainable income-generating opportunities for women.

The project’s initial focus is on Indonesia and Bangladesh, where during 2012, the Unilever Foundation provided 102,000 school children with micronutrient-enriched school meals.

In 2013 we will continue to support WFP’s school meals programmes, and we will also begin a new project which focuses on good nutrition for pregnant women, new mothers, and children in the first 1,000 days of life.

We will continue also in 2013 all activities under the pillars of Water, Health & Hygiene and Livelihoods in order to assure the holistic approach.

Scaling up Nutrition (SUN)

As part of our commitment to tackling malnutrition and its underlying causes, our CEO Paul Polman has been asked by the United Nations to sit on the Lead Group of Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN). SUN is a UN-led multi-stakeholder initiative which aims to tackle continuing high levels of undernutrition and hunger in the world. The initiative is led by David Nabarro, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Food Security and Nutrition.

Recognising the contribution that the private sector can make in delivering solutions at scale, Unilever and other companies, donors, civil society and others have been tasked with exploring market-based solutions to malnutrition. Studies show that the first 1,000 days of an infant’s life is critical in determining its health as an adult, and so reaching pregnant women, new mothers and young infants will be a key focus for this initiative.