Widespread zinc deficiency is likely to exist in developing countries where staple diets are predominantly plant based and intakes of animal tissues are low. The severe negative consequences of zinc deficiency on human health in developing countries, however, have only recently been recognized. An integrated approach employing targeted supplementation, fortification and dietary strategies must be used to maximize the likelihood of eliminating zinc deficiency at a national level in developing countries. Supplementation is appropriate only for populations whose zinc status must be improved over a relatively short time period, and when requirements cannot be met from habitual dietary sources. As well, the health system must be capable of providing consistent supply, distribution, delivery and consumption of the zinc supplement to the targeted groups. Uncertainties still exist about the type, frequency, and level of supplemental zinc required for prevention and treatment of zinc deficiency. Salts that are readily absorbed and at levels that will not induce antagonistic nutrient interactions must be used. At a national level, fortification with multiple micronutrients could be a cost effective method for improving micronutrient status, including zinc, provided that a suitable food vehicle which is centrally processed is available. Alternatively, fortification could be targeted for certain high risk groups (e.g. complementary foods for infants). Efforts should be made to develop protected fortificants for zinc, so that potent inhibitors of zinc absorption (e.g. phytate) present either in the food vehicle and/or indigenous meals do not compromise zinc absorption. Fortification does not require any changes in the existing food beliefs and practices for the consumer and, unlike supplementation, does not impose a burden on the health sector. A quality assurance programme is required, however, to ensure the quality of the fortified food product from production to consumption. In the future, dietary modification/diversification, although long term, may be the preferred strategy because it is more sustainable, economically feasible, culturally acceptable, and equitable, and can be used to alleviate several micronutrient deficiencies simultaneously, without danger of inducing antagonistic micronutrient interactions. Appropriate dietary strategies include consumption of zinc-dense foods and those known to enhance zinc absorption, reducing the phytic acid content of plant based staples via enzymic hydrolysis induced by germination/fermentation or nonenzymic hydrolysis by soaking or thermal processing. All the strategies outlined above should be integrated with ongoing national food, nutrition and health education programmes, to enhance their effectiveness and sustainability, and implemented using nutrition education and social marketing techniques. Ultimately the success of any approach for combating zinc deficiency depends on strong advocacy, top level commitment, a stable infrastructure, long term financial support and the capacity to control quality and monitor and enforce compliance at the national or regional level. To be cost effective, costs for these strategies must be shared by industry, government, donors and consumers.
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