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Change of Diets in Europe could have a Major Impact on Cognitive Development Due to Reduction of Iodine Intake by European Populations

Introduced by former Prime Minister of the Netherlands Prof. Jan Peter Balkenende, the 2nd World Iodine Association (WIA) International Conference on Iodine in Food Systems and Health* opened with a warning from the scientific community. Despite the normalisation of iodine intake in diets worldwide, a shift in food consumption habits could lead to a resurgence of iodine deficiency disorders (IDDs) with a long-lasting impact on brain development in European populations.

According to Dr Werner Schultink, Executive Director of the Iodine Global Network**: “Today, thanks to global awareness-raising campaigns, close to 90% of the world population use iodized salt in their diet. However, this achievement is under threat due to many factors, including reduced political awareness and commitment and changes in food consumption patterns. The cognitive underperformance of communities at a large scale has dramatic consequences on societies. We call on further vigilance from European health authorities on this matter.”

Iodine is a critical, yet largely overlooked, life-essential nutrient that enables hormone production in the thyroid and plays a critical role in bone and brain development. Found in some aliments like seafood, dairy products, and eggs, the suitable iodine intake is at risk as more people switch to processed foods without iodised salt, or vegan-sourced diets.

Dr Sarah Bath, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Surrey, further explains: “Iodine deficiency is potentially a rising problem as we move towards a more plant-based diet since we know that there is less iodine in plant sources. Plant-based food alternatives – like milk-alternatives – would benefit from being fortified with iodine to provide vulnerable populations – such as pregnant women, teenagers, and young adults – with a source of iodine if they are following a predominately plant-based diet.”

The agronomic biofortification of food and feed plants with iodine is indeed a highly effective solution considered by European policymakers. Research on this front is rather promising, comments Prof Dr Ismail Cakmak from Sabanci University in Istanbul: “Available published data show that the use of iodine containing fertilisers is a quick and cost-effective strategy to deliver iodine to food systems. Such enrichment strategy could be a way forward in reducing IDDS in human populations.”

In the meantime, a multi-stakeholder approach is underway to promote these solutions and educating populations on the prevention of IDDs in Europe. Alliances like EUthyroid, the EU-funded project, strive for the implementation of a cost-effective harmonised approach to iodine prevention in Europe.

Prof. Dr MD Henry Völzke, University Medicine Greifswald, and coordinator of the EUThyroid consortium states: “EUthyroid has uncovered important barriers against optimised iodine fortification programmes, including the low awareness of iodine deficiency-related risks in the general population. As the next step, EUthyroid will find best practice models for accessing and informing adolescents and young women as high-risk groups about the importance of iodine intake.”

*The 2nd World Iodine Association Conference on Iodine in Food Systems and Health took place over the 3rd and 4th of November at the Inntel Hotel in Rotterdam. The 2nd World Iodine Association Conference gathers a wide range of worldwide experts, from scientists, academia, endocrinologists, patients, to policymakers and representatives of the iodine industry to discuss the latest scientific and policy developments related to the prevention of iodine deficiency disorders.

**The Iodine Global Network is currently overseeing the preparation of a report for the World Health Organisation office in Europe, entitled “Iodine Deficiency in Europe: A solution at our doorstep”. Expected publication of Part A in the first quarter of 2023.

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