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There is no scientific or regulated definition for superfood, but generally, a food item is promoted to superfood status when it offers high levels of desirable nutrients, is linked to the prevention of a disease, or is believed to offer several simultaneous health benefits beyond its nutritional value.  Superfoods can’t be a replacement for a healthy diet, but appropriate consumption alongside a healthy platter can be used to target specific deficiencies and major illnesses. Common Indian superfoods include turmeric, coconut, amla, carrom seeds, and moringa. While Superfoods are not accepted by all medical professionals there are no side effects of these food items and in India’s case, they are available in abundance as well. For this reason, superfoods can play an important role in women and child nutrition in the country.

1.    Supplements Approach

Mandatory nutrition supplementation programs all over the world have led to an overdependence on these supplements for tackling common health conditions in infants. These programs were meant to be temporary solutions considering their immediate and effective results and ideally should have been replaced with dietary measures to tackle common deficiencies over the long run.

Vitamin A deficiency, for example, is common in many developing countries and in India as well every infant gets a mandatory shot of Vitamin A supplement for a few years after birth. This adds to the list of other shots that an infant is supposed to receive and has obvious monetary, logistic, and time costs associated with it. Unfortunately, these costs will be incurred forever if we keep looking only at supplements. Additionally, over time nutrition supplements reduce deficiency in future generations naturally without intervention. Therefore, through a compulsory and sustained supplementation system, we might be giving more than the required dose of certain nutrients to infants. Vitamin A overdose, for example, in the long run, can cause enlarged liver and weakened bones.

A more sustainable method for long-term use can be dietary changes alongside synthetic substitution that target nutrient deficiencies. This is where superfoods can come into play as there are several food items that are very commonly available in India and are actually superfoods that if given in appropriate amounts can supply commonly deficient nutrients. Drumsticks, for example, might be available without purchasing in rural areas and are an excellent source of Vitamin A. Deficiencies that are not already targeted through supplements, like Vitamin D deficiency, which is fairly common, can also be remedied through superfood diets.

Similarly, for women’s health concerns, where supplements are not even available at times, superfoods’ inclusion in diet can target these concerns from the very origin. Anaemia is still a common problem for women in India (31.7 per cent women as of 2019)  and anaemic women usually give birth to low-weight children (35.7 per cent of children under 5 years of age are underweight and 38.4 per cent are stunted) . While Iron tablets have an obvious cost, turmeric is available in every Indian household and correct consumption can reduce iron deficiency over time. In this scenario, what may be needed from the government’s end is to only figure out appropriate quantities and consumption ways and then popularise them through various channels.    


2.    Calorie intake approach

In India, we are giving relatively more importance to adequate calorie intake through diet programs and less focus is on nutrient intake through diet. Adequate calorie intake does not necessarily mean adequate nutrient intake. Minimum calorie intake is common for the entire country, with only divisions being urban and rural, and child and adult. But minimum nutrient intake will depend on geography, family history, gender, age, and several other parameters. 

By incorporating superfoods in diet programs, we can target nutrient intake in a less logistically difficult and wider coverage manner. Superfoods have the advantage of providing more nutrients even through small intake and can thus prove to be more cost-effective for people who spend less part of household expenditure on nutrition-related purposes. Malawi, for example, an African nation, has been able to bring down vitamin A deficiency from 22 per cent in 2010 to 4 per cent in 2015 through fortifying food items rich in vitamin A in the daily diets of underprivileged families. 

It is important to understand that most nutritional deficiencies exist in developing or underdeveloped countries as opposed to developed countries not because of better supplementation programs in developed countries but because of holistic diet patterns.

Use Case

Moringa, a tree native to India, has proven benefits in countering malnutrition. Moringa powder has been used in countries like Guatemala  and Senegal  to reduce the incidence of malnutrition. National Health Mission in Gujarat recommended the consumption of moringa leaves, fruits, and barks to fight malnutrition in 2018. Moringa is popularised as a superfood containing more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, and more vitamin C than oranges. A national-level inclusion of Moringa in the diet is very much possible considering its easy availability all across India.

This article is authored by Karishma Sharma.

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