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 “We’re still losing one generation after another to malnutrition and this just shouldn’t be happening anymore,” deplored Dr. Howard Bouis, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
 
In Asia, where nearly all the world’s rice is grown and eaten, food means rice.  In the Philippines, for instance, people consume about 4-5 cups of cooked rice per day.  “If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino,” said the late food epicure Doreen Fernandez.
 
Since rice is consumed in great amounts, rice is a vehicle for fortification.  According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), food fortification is “the addition of one or more essential nutrients to a food, whether or not it is normally contained in the food, for the purpose of preventing or correcting a demonstrated deficiency in one or more nutrients in the population of specific population groups in which a risk of nutrient deficiency has been identified.”
 
One of the nutrients identified as lacking in Filipino diet is iron. “Iron is a mineral that is responsible in the production of hemoglobin, the red coloring of the blood,” FNRI, an attached agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), explains.  “Hemoglobin is the carrier of oxygen from the lungs to be distributed to the different parts of the body.”
 
A person who does not get enough iron from his diet will have a lower hemoglobin level.  “If this condition is prolonged, one will be suffering from iron deficiency anemia or IDA,” FNRI warns.
 
IDA develops when body stores of iron drop too low to support normal red blood cell production.  “In the Philippines, IDA is very serious across population groups,” FNRI says, adding it is most common among newly-born babies (from 6-11 months old) and pregnant women.
 
Among children, the consequences of IDA include poor scholastic performance due to poor cognition, low attention span, and frequent attacks of illness due to lowered immune response.
Low and poor productivity due to easy fatigability are what adults experience when they have IDA.  Pregnant women with IDA, on the other hand, may suffer from stillbirths, miscarriages and hemorrhage, or worst, death of the baby.
 
In a recent National Nutrition Survey, it was found that the Philippines has national iron-deficiency prevalence rate of 11 percent.  Another nutritional survey suggested that about 50% of the iron intake, even among high-income households, comes from the cereals, particularly rice and corn.
 
Balancing cereal-based diets with vegetables and animal products is one approach used in some developing countries to address malnutrition problems.  But results were frustrating.  Vegetables and animal products are expensive, and seasonal, subject to spoilage because of limited storage and transport facilities.
 
In 2000, the government signed the Food Fortification Law or Republic Act No. 8976.  It stipulates mandatory fortification of staples like rice with iron and voluntary fortification of processed foods with iron, vitamin A and/or iodine.
 
In 2004, the National Food Authority (NFA) fortified rice with iron.  “NFA led the implementation of the law and has imported iron premix rice (IPR) fortified with ferrous sulfate using coating technology from the United States as no locally produced IPR was available at that time,” said a briefing paper on iron-fortified rice (IFR).
 
The IFR was distributed to identified nutritionally-at-risk areas through Food for Schools Program.  Unfortunately, the NFA fortified rice was less accepted by consumers due to the dark yellow-colored iron premix in rice and the darkening color of cooked rice.  In 2010, NFA stopped the importation of IPR and is now committed to utilizing locally-produced IPR.
 
For its part, FNRI developed IPR made from rice flour blended with iron -- with micronized dispersible ferric pyrophosphate as fortificant -- using extrusion technology, which proved to be stable for one-year storage with iron content still retained.
 
The National Center for Biotechnology Information said ferric pyrophosphate is “a water-insoluble iron (Fe) compound used to fortify infant cereals and chocolate drink powders.”
 
In a study conducted among school children in a public school in Pasig, it was found that there was “a very significant decline in anemia prevalence from 100% to 33%.”  The IFR was rated as “liked moderately” to “liked very much.”
 
Another study, done in the town of Orion, Bataan and the province of Zambales showed that IFR could be marketed under normal conditions by licensed grain dealers.
 
“The proven nutritional benefits of fortifying rice merits to be downloaded to the private mills making IFR available, affordable and accessible for consumption of all Filipinos to achieve food and nutrition security for higher productivity,” FNRI said in a statement.
 
Two years ago, the DOST started to roll out the transfer of IPR and IFR technology to private mills/investors in Mindanao.
 
In a recent Edge Davao report, written by Cheneen R. Capon, the FNRI urges local governments units in Mindanao “to pass ordinances that will mandate rice millers to produce iron-fortified rice.”
 
According to Elsie Mae Solidum, DOST 11 assistant regional director, only the province of Compostela Valley has such an ordinance.  “The iron-fortified rice is now being sold in different public market in Compostela Valley,” she was quoted as saying.