A Few “Sprinkles” Provide a Big Boost

By David McLaughlin

Stanley ZlotkinIn 2001, economic instability and severe winters caused serious food shortages in Mongolia. Parents watched their children eat just basic staples and worried about their health. Due to iron deficiencies, cases of anemia and rickets rose.

But in the summer of 2001, hope arrived in the form of a small packet.

Sprinkles, known generically as micronutrient powders, are a tasteless mixture of essential minerals and vitamins that can greatly boost the nutritional value of food. They are the product of research by Stanley Zlotkin, a Professor in the Departments of Paediatrics and Nutritional Sciences and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, who is also a Research Scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children.

Non-governmental organizations in Mongolia gave Sprinkles to over 10,000 children under the age of two. Parents welcomed the invention, and follow-up evaluations showed that the vital nutrients reached 88 per cent of the targeted population. Sprinkles boosted the nutritional value of meals, and children had greater protection from preventable diseases.

The Mongolian success story has now spread around the world.

Zlotkin’s research group began developing Sprinkles in 1996. At the time, international aid workers were calling for better interventions to help children experiencing iron deficiency anemia. Syrups and drops were then the standard intervention, but their effect was limited because adherence to regular use was so poor. Zlotkin’s research group devised a solution that was inexpensive to produce and could fortify many different foods.

Sprinkles have tremendous adaptability. Nutritional scientists can formulate them to fight iron deficiency, but can include other micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid and zinc. Sprinkles have now reduced nutrient deficiencies among children in Nicaragua, Pakistan, India, Guyana, Bangladesh and more than 30 other countries.

Though “sprinkles” sound like a food children would love, public officials have embraced them. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was a strong proponent of their distribution in his home country of Ghana, and in other places of need. Zlotkin and his colleagues received funding for Sprinkles research from the Canadian International Development Agency and national health funding agencies in the U.S. and Canada.

The Heinz Company Foundation donated funding and technical support to produce Sprinkles packets for clinical field trials, and the company honoured Zlotkin with its first Heinz Humanitarian Award in 2001. In 2007, Zlotkin received the Order of Canada for improving the lives of children globally.

Today, UNICEF, the World Food Program and other UN agencies distribute micronutrient powders to millions of children in more than 40 countries.