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Public facing “silent crisis” of vitamins and minerals deficiency, experts warn

26 Mar 2024

Europe is facing a nutrient deficiency that will impact children’s development and curtail healthy aging among older adults, experts have warned.

Prof Kevin Cashman and Prof Mairead Kiely of University College Cork have cautioned that the general population is facing a Micronutrient (MN) Deficiency crisis – but that the scale of the problem is yet unknown.

MN deficiency arises from inadequate intake or absorption of essential minerals and vitamins, which affects healthy growth and development in children and impacts on healthy aging among older adults. Affecting most population groups, the scale of the problem, its effects on health and the costs it incurs to the health sector and to economic development, are unknown.

It is feared this issue particularly affects groups including children, adolescents, pregnant women, older adults, migrant communities, and those affected by social inequalities. Because it is likely to be highly prevalent, addressing the issue of micronutrient malnutrition requires comprehensive data on MN deficiency prevalence, its underlying causes and possible solutions.

In recognition of the severity of the problem, a project led by Prof Cashman and Prof Kiely of UCC’s Cork Centre of Vitamin D and Nutrition Research at the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences has just been awarded over €10m in funding to both assess the cost and scale of the MN deficiency issue, and to develop solutions. Aligned to the UCC Futures thematic area of Food, Microbiome and Health, the project will build on UCC’s long standing reputation for research excellence across food, food business, and medicine.

The Zero_HiddenHunger_EU Project is a 19-partner consortium which received more than €10 million in research funding from Horizon Europe and Associated Partners for ground-breaking research into tackling micronutrient deficiency in Europe over the next four years. Dr Jennifer Browne and Ms. Anna Power from UCC Academy will provide project management support to the consortium.    

Recognising the urgency of this public health issue, the Zero_HiddenHunger_EU project is set to revolutionize our understanding and response to MN deficiencies.

Zero_HiddenHunger_EU aims to fill this critical gap by pursuing two primary objectives:

  1. Estimating Prevalence and Health Costs: The project will generate accurate measures of MN deficiency prevalence using priority biomarker and intake data from diverse European populations. By focusing on high-risk groups, such as marginalized communities and vulnerable populations, the project aims to uncover the true extent of the issue and its associated health costs, using health economics analysis led by Drs Brendan McElroy and Lee-Ann Burke at UCC’s Cork University Business School.
  2. Developing Tailored Solutions: Armed with robust evidence, the project seeks to develop context-specific, food-focused strategies to ensure adequate MN intake from sustainable sources. The consortium aims to deliver tailored solutions that address the root causes of MN deficiencies across Europe.

Professors Cashman & Kiely, joint Coordinators, expressed optimism about the project's potential impact, stating:

"Zero_HiddenHunger_EU represents a landmark effort to confront the silent crisis of MN deficiency in Europe. By leveraging innovative research methodologies and collaborative partnerships, we aim to drive meaningful change and ensure equitable access to essential nutrients across European populations."

Mark Sweeney, Horizon Europe National Contact Point, Enterprise Ireland commented:

"Micronutrient deficiency is a major global health issue and can have very serious and debilitating consequences, particularly amongst vulnerable groups. The Zero_HiddenHunger_EU project is an excellent example of Irish researchers competing at the very highest level of European research and winning. The innovative approach of this €10m UCC led project has the potential to help understand, prevent, and control micronutrient deficiency and have significant positive impacts in terms of human health. I would like to congratulate Professor Kiely and Professor Kevin Cashman and wish them well for the duration of the project."

The Zero_HiddenHunger_EU project underscores the importance of collective action in addressing complex public health challenges across Europe. By prioritising data-driven interventions and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration, the project aims to pave the way for a healthier, more resilient Europe.

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