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Sizzling Vitamins Bring Nutrition To Egypt's Poor

A project to bring nutritionally-enhanced vegetable oil into the homes of some 60 million people got underway this week in a bid to stem widespread malnutrition in Egypt. The joint effort makes use of Egypt’s vast subsidized food system to ensure that the country’s poorest get the vitamins and minerals they need.

CAIRO—The sound of frying foods is a familiar one in most Egyptian homes where the nation’s favourite foods like chips, courgettes and falafel are often cooked in vegetable oil. But for many, fried vegetables are all they can afford.

Laila Mohamed Ali, 30, is a mother of three from the Cairo suburb of Helwan. Like many Egyptians, she buys government-subsidised oil, which can cost as little as 3 Egyptian pounds per litre (around US $0.70) compared to the regular price of 11 pounds (US $2.00).

“Subsidised oil is the only kind I can afford,” said Laila as she cooks vegetables and potatoes for her children’s lunch. “We use oil three times a day. It’s something we can’t do without.”

In order to grow and thrive, Lail’s children need vitamins and nutrients that are missing from the foods that Laila can afford. To ensure that Egyptian children like hers get adequate nutrition, WFP has joined the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Egyptian government in launching a project to enrich the oil she uses to cook.  The oil is being fortified with vitamins A and D.

A vehicle for nutrition

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in two Egyptian children under five is anaemic. Moreover, a 2005 Demographic Health Survey showed that 45-percent of Egyptian mothers had not eaten any fruits or vegetables containing vitamin A in the 24 hours prior to the survey.

When deciding on a means to combat malnutrition in Egypt, oil makes an obvious choice. As of 2008, all Egyptians are entitled to 18 kg of subsidised oil per year, which reaches an estimated 80 percent of the population according to officials.

“We found that people do not eat enough fruit and vegetables and that is why we picked a food item people use in almost every meal,” said Azza Gohar, director of the National Nutrition Institute. “They do not need to change their eating habits.”

Better oil and bread

Gohar said the project, launched in November, could reach as many as 60 million people with vitamin enriched vegetable oil.

Oil is not the first nutritionally-enhanced food to find its way into Egyptian homes. A similar programme by WFP, GAIN and the government to fortify wheat flour has brought vitamin-enriched baladi bread into the homes of some 50 million people since 2008.