Micronutrients, often referred to as vitamins and minerals, are vital to healthy development, disease prevention, and wellbeing. Although only required in small amounts, micronutrients are not produced in the body and must be derived from the diet.
Micronutrient deficiencies can have devastating consequences. At least half of children worldwide younger than 5 years of age suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The role of six essential nutrients is outlined below.
- Iron is critical for motor and cognitive development. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the consequences of iron deficiency.
- Iron is a leading cause of anemia which is defined as low hemoglobin concentration. Anemia affects 43% of children younger than 5 years of age and 38% of pregnant women globally.
- Anemia during pregnancy increases the risk of death for the mother and low birth weight for the infant. Worldwide, maternal and neonatal deaths total between 2.5 million and 3.4 million each year.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends iron and folic acid supplements for reducing anemia and improving iron status among women of reproductive age.
- Fortifying flour with iron and folic acid is globally recognized as an effective, low-cost intervention.
Preventing iron deficiency helps improve children’s learning ability and cognitive development.Vitamin A
- Vitamin A supports healthy eyesight and immune system functions. Children with vitamin A deficiency face an increased risk of blindness and death from infections such as measles and diarrhea.
- Globally, vitamin A deficiency affects an estimated 190 million preschool-age children.
- Providing vitamin A supplements to children ages 6-59 months is highly effective in reducing deaths from all causes where vitamin A deficiency is a public health concern.
- Vitamin D builds healthy bones. Vitamin D deficiency causes bone diseases, including rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
- Vitamin is required for muscle and nerve functions.
- Vitamin D helps the immune system resist bacteria and virsues.
- Iodine is required during pregnancy and infancy for the infant’s healthy growth and cognitive development.
- Globally an estimated 1.8 billion people have insufficient iodine intake.
- Iodine content in most foods and beverages is low.
- Fortifying salt with iodine is a successful intervention – about 86% of households worldwide consume iodized salt.
- The amount of iodine added to salt can be adjusted so that people maintain adequate iodine intake even if they consume less salt11.
Fortifying salt with iodine successfully increases intake of iodine.Folate
- Folate (vitamin B9) is essential in the earliest days of fetal growth for healthy development of the brain and spine.
- Ensuring sufficient levels of folate in women prior to conception can reduce neural tube defects (such as spina bifida and anencephaly).
- Folic acid is another form of vitamin B9. Providing folic acid supplements to women 15-49 years and fortifying foods such as wheat flour with folic acid reduces the incidence of neural tube defects and neonatal deaths13.
Flour can be fortified with folic acid at low cost, helping prevent birth defects and some forms of anemia.Zinc
- Zinc promotes immune functions and helps people resist infectious diseases including diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. Zinc is also needed for healthy pregnancies.
- Globally, 17.3% of the population is at risk for zinc deficiency due to dietary inadequacy; up to 30% of people are at risk in some regions of the world.
- Providing zinc supplements reduces the incidence of premature birth, decreases childhood diarrhea and respiratory infections, lowers the number of deaths from all causes, and increases growth and weight gain among infants and young children.