It's 6 am and the only sign of activity is smoke from the chimney at the Akshaya Patra kitchen at Hubli. Drive up the dusty path and it becomes evident why they are called a mega kitchen.

Cauldrons of rice and sambar are on the boil in a well-oiled mechanised linear kitchen and the smell wafts across the floor. This kitchen is among the first in the country to use fortified rice after the Central government came out with standards for fortified food in late October.

The kitchen uses Ultra Rice or rice fortified with multiple micro-nutrients including iron, folic acid and vitamins and this is supplied to schools under the Karnataka government's midday meal scheme. And the initiative is being called by the State government as the “biggest ever program (of staple food fortification) in terms of reach”.

In fact, food fortification is a tool in the Centre's kitty to tackle micronutrient malnutrition or “hidden hunger” where people are under-nourished due to thechronic lack of vitamins and minerals. And the word is that more States are keen to adopt similar initiatives.

At the mega kitchen, work begins everyday at 3.30 am, says Rajesh Patki with The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF), as the food needs to reach about 800 schools across Dharwad, or 1.5 lakh children by noon. The Ultra Rice is mixed with regular rice in the ratio 1:99, explains Arvind Betigeri, Project Manager (rice fortification) with PATH, the non-profit organisation that initially came up with the technology further developed by US healthcare major Abbott. The fortified rice is supplied to the kitchen by Usher Agro Ltd.

Micro nutrients addition Explaining how it is made, Betigeri says that the micro nutrients are added to the rice flour in portions as outlined in by the Government and the paste is extruded into rice grains. The addition of fortified rice into the daily meal adds about 10 paisa to a meal priced at Rs 7, says Rajiv Lochana Das, President, TAPF (Hubli). About half that cost is subsidised by the Government.

But for the children at SGKGS Narendra Primary Girls School (Dharwad), the piping hot food is something to look forward to, and “palao”, they pipe out in a chorus is a hot favorite. Children can be selective with food, says Betigeri, underlining why it was important for the fortified rice to not have a smell or colour that could put them off.

Rice is “unforgiving”, says Abbott's Dan Schmitz, explaining the challenge in packing multiple nutrients into rice grains and not change its texture, colour or odour, besides keeping cost under control. “It is one of the most difficult foods to fortify,” he says, contrasting it with fortifed milk (with Vitamin A), salt (with iodine) etc.

Schmitz is Abbott's head of nutrition global product development and their team took three years to develop this optimum rice formulation. Iron tackles anemia and vitamins improve immunity and the nervous system, he says. The Abbott team was involved with the rice formulation and manufacture research, checking its 12-18 month shelf life, stability of the rice on heating and maintenance of the dosage even a year later etc. PATH works with the Government to introduce it into the public health arena through midday meals, PDS (public distribution systems) etc.

Happy at being part of the initial rollout, Sushama Godbole, Chief Executive Officer of Dharwad Zilla Panchayat agrees that the fortified food will help address deficiencies. But its impact, she adds, will be studied after about six months. She in fact calls for greater dietary diversity, like including pulses into the diet.

Over-dosing? Responding to concerns on whether the constant consumption of fortified foodcould cause over-dosing of micro-nutrients, Schmitz explains that theingredients are added in amounts that mimic the natural diet and is given in quantities in line with daily requirement. There is low risk of over fortification, he says, as the body has its own way to deal with these nutrients.

Madhavan Nair, former scientist with the National Institute of Nutrition agrees that over-dosing is “very unlikely” . The fortification is in line with the Government's guidelines, he says, adding that any excess would be eliminated by the body. Pointing out that any staple food can be fortified (wheat, salt etc) depending on the health and nutritional need, Nair furhter calls for “synergistic food” habits that involve eating a fruit with food to improve the absorption of nutrients into the body.

Info on Ultra Rice technology

* Micronutrient malnutrition occurs when people do not get the right vitamins and minerals from their diet, compromising immunity, and physical and cognitive development.

* Ultra Rice technology packs vitamins and minerals into rice-shaped “grains” made from rice flour and manufactured using pasta-extrusion equipment.

* In 2017, 4,60,000 children will receive Ultra Rice as part of their daily lunch at 2,600 government schools in Karnataka.

(The writer was in Hubli on an invitation from Abbott.)