Several scientists and non-governmental organisations have asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to scrap its plans to make synthetic or chemical fortification of foods mandatory.

“A major problem with the chemical fortification of foods, said the letter, is that nutrients don’t work in isolation but need each other for optimal absorption,” they said in a letter to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

Adding one or two synthetic chemical vitamins and minerals will not solve the larger problem, and in under-nourished population can lead to toxicity, including gut inflammation, they contended.

They said any such forced move could lead to irreversible health problems and could impact small and informal players in the market. Besides shifting opportunities in favour of large players, the move could promote monocultures in diets and reliance on packaged foods.

Signatories included medical experts, nutritionists, agricultural scientists, farmers’ organisations, academics, civil society organisations and concerned citizens from across the country.

Draft regulations

“The FSSAI issued draft regulations on mandatory fortification of edible oil and milk with Vitamin A and D. It has also announced intentions to make rice fortification mandatory with Vitamin B12, Iron, and Folic Acid starting 2024,” the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA-Kisan Swaraj) has said.

The Government recently started a three-year pilot scheme on rice fortification and supply through public distribution system in 15 districts across the country.

The FSSAI had asserted that that it saw fortification only as a complementary strategy to diverse diets. “Activists point out that FSSAI’s intentions are questionable since it cited industry-funded studies to justify fortification on a national scale, wilfully ignoring conflict of interest since those very entities stand most to profit from such a policy,” ASHA said.

“If FSSAI really saw fortification as a complementary strategy, then why is fortification mandatory while dietary diversity and other holistic approaches to malnutrition are optional, ASHA and other organisations wondered.

The key problem is calorie and especially protein inadequacy as a result of monotonous cereal-based diets along with low consumption of vegetables and animal protein, they argued.

Inconclusive evidence

“Evidence supporting fortification is inconclusive and certainly not adequate before major national policies are rolled out,” Veena Shatrugna, former Deputy Director of National Institute of Nutrition, said.

“It is ridiculous that the government is promoting polished rice, which has lost a lot of its nutrition on the one hand, and talks about chemical fortification on the other hand,” Debal Deb, an ecologist and traditional rice conservator, said.

Economic impact

The letter said informal players such small rice millers, oil mills, small farmers, and local enterprises, who will not be able to make the heavy investments required to for fortified products.

The letter asked the government not to adopt a blanket approach to meet the complexity of malnutrition in our country.

The simple and complete solution, they say, is to improve diets and diversify them via widely available nutrient dense vegetables, millets, animal protein and dairy products.