Microcapsules against malnutrition
Vitamin A deficiency is a serious problem in more than 70 countries around the world. People affected by this form of malnutrition can go blind and more easily contract infections like measles or diarrhea because of their weakened immune system. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that particularly 140 to 250 million children under five years of age are suffering from vitamin A deficiency worldwide. Women with malnutrition are also at much greater risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth than women with a sufficient supply of vitamin A. "With its programs, BASF is fighting against malnutrition in emerging and developing countries," explains Dr. Claus Soendergaard, Global Application Manager at BASF. "This is done by fortifying staple foods with specially protected vitamin A."
"The most important objective is to ensure a long-term supply of food containing vitamin A," says Professor Dr. Michael Krawinkel of Justus-Liebig University in Gießen (Germany). At this academic institution, he holds the Chair of "Human Nutrition with Focus on International Nutrition" and is also scientific adviser to the Safo initiative – a project jointly financed by BASF and the federally owned Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH. "Vitamin A can only have a sustainable effect if taken regularly in small doses. A single dose of vitamin A capsules provides only short term benefits," explains Krawinkel. "Fortifying staple foods such as oil, sugar and flour, which are consumed by the population regularly and in sufficient amounts, therefore offers a possible medium- to long-term solution."
Since the human body cannot produce vitamin A itself, it has to be ingested with food – a problem for people living in the emerging and developing countries. They cannot afford expensive food like high-fat fish and meat which contain natural supplies of the vitamin. Instead, they nourish themselves mainly with cheap staple foods such as oil, corn, rice and flour. These foods that are also affordable for poor households, however, can be enhanced with additional nutrients. With the method known as food fortification, staple foods are enriched with vitamins and minerals that they do not naturally contain at all or only in small amounts.
The vitamin A used to fortify oil, flour and sugar is manufactured by BASF in Ludwigshafen: the starting substance citral is converted in a multistage process to the complex vitamin A, which is liquid, fat-soluble and can only be mixed directly with edible oil. To allow it to be mixed with the solid foods flour and sugar at all, it first has to be specially packaged at BASF's Ballerup site in Denmark. "At this facility, BASF has extensive know-how in the field of microencapsulation," explains Soendergaard. "The vitamin A is packaged into small, protective beadlets of starch or gelatin." This is because the high temperatures in the target countries as well as light and oxygen could otherwise destroy the valuable vitamin.
Soendergaard explains to the local food producers how to fortify the foods with vitamin A. "The producers are always amazed to see how little they need to change to operate this process," says Soendergaard. "We also jointly work out the technical requirements, defining exactly what has to be added to the production plant and how it is to be used in future."
BASF has also developed a convenient spot test kit to allow producers to check the concentration of the vitamin as it is being added. This mini laboratory about the size of a laptop case can be used to rule out under- or overdosage. "So we offer our customers and partners not only the vitamin A, but also a holistic solution package," adds Soendergaard.
BASF's Food Fortification Team is operating programs in more than 30 countries around the world. This also includes the "Strategic Alliance for the Fortification of Oil and Other Staple Foods" (Safo) – a Public Private Partnership (PPP) between BASF and the GTZ. The PPP program is being financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and realized by GTZ.
"The purpose of the Safo is to provide low-income population groups in currently six selected emerging and developing countries at low cost with staple foods fortified with vitamin A at low cost," explains Evi-Kornelia Gruber, GTZ Coordinator of the Safo project. For this purpose, GTZ has placed its services and knowledge at the disposal of the countries concerned – so far in Bolivia, Brazil, Tanzania, Indonesia, Cambodia and Usbekistan. "Safo helps people locally to fortify the typical staple foods of their country. Even poor households can afford the higher price of the fortified foods. For example, fortifying edible oil with vitamin A increases the price by just 0.1 to 0.2 per cent," explains Gruber.
"Satisfying nutritional needs and tapping into markets are not conflicting goals," explains Dr. Andreas Blüthner, Global Coordinator of Safo and BASF's Food Fortification Team. Today, approximately four billion people live on less than $2 a day. Added together, this "base of the economic pyramid" of the world population nevertheless represents a substantial portion of the world's purchasing power. "In this way we – and our customers – can become part of the solution to a major global nutrition problem," adds Blüthner.
The Info Box
Vitamin A is the name given to retinol and several related compounds with the same biological actions. It is essential not only for vision, but for almost all the functions of the human body: the nervous system, the production of new blood corpuscles, the protein metabolism, skin, mucous membranes, hormones, the skeleton and the immune system.
At BASF's Ballerup site in Denmark, vitamin A oil droplets are packaged into small micrometer spheres which protect it against harmful influences such as high temperatures and free radicals. The process is known as beadlet formulation or microencapsulation. The vitamin A droplets are embedded in a matrix and enveloped with a starch or gelatin powder. The matrix is made of sugar and antioxidants like vitamin E, which intercepts radicals and protects the vitamin A from decomposition.
People need only a small amount of vitamin A and therefore tiny amounts are already sufficient to fortify food. One kilogram of fortified flour, for example, contains only three to five milligrams of vitamin A.
In the industrialized countries, almost everyone has access to foods rich in vitamin A, such as deep sea fish and meat. To prevent overdosing, vitamin fortification of foods is therefore subject to strict regulation. In the emerging and developing countries, the dosages of the vitamin in food are determined in close liaison with the various health agencies. Only those foods are considered suitable which either because of their high calorie content or volume are not liable to be consumed in excessive amounts. For example, it would be necessary to consume about 750 milliliters of edible oil or 2 kilograms of flour daily for several weeks to cause an overdose.