Review: “Hidden Hunger”

Jessica Loyer

Aya Hirata Kimura. Hidden Hunger: Gender and the Politics of Smarter Foods. Cornell University Press. 2013. 226 pp.

The “hidden hunger” to which Aya Hirata Kimura refers in the title of her critique of fortification-based interventions into the problems of hunger and malnutrition in the developing world is generally understood to refer to micronutrient deficiencies, or the lack of sufficient nutrients in the diets of the world’s poor. According to prominent hidden hunger discourse, diseases and disorders caused by a lack of essential micronutrients, such as vitamin A, iron, and iodine, are often invisible to those who suffer from them. Therefore the “hunger” is hidden from them and requires expert intervention to cure it. But Kimura points out that something else is hidden in these discourses and practices: the voices of the very people who live with hunger, disease, and poverty, many of whom are women. The fact that these are the very people whose bodies are targeted by hidden hunger interventions increases the irony that their voices are silenced as the experts who constitute the international food policy community determine how best to improve their health and nutrition.

Drawing upon theoretical foundations in feminist food studies, agrofood studies, and science and technology studies, Kimura constructs a nuanced critique of the discourses and practices that constitute the focus on micronutrient deficiencies as the primary problem of hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. In the 1990s, international food policy regarding these problems witnessed what Kimura calls the “micronutrient turn.” Experts and policy makers diagnosed the lack of sufficient micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, vitamin A, and iodine, as the predominant problem in developingworld diets. Simultaneously, they advocated technological fixes of fortification (adding nutrients to processed foods) and biofortification (altering foods at the genetic level to produce more nutrient-dense crops) as the solutions. By framing the problem as a technical question best addressed by nutritional and agricultural science, the micronutrient turn not only put the power to solve this problem in the hands of expert scientists and agrofood companies but also served to portray the problem as apolitical in nature. Instead of situating hunger and malnutrition within the broader context of poverty and social inequality, it sought to address nutritional inadequacies without changing their underlying causes.

Kimura implicates the ideology of nutritionism, in which food is viewed primarily as a vehicle for delivering nutrients rather than in context of the complex relationships between food, health, and the body, in the increasingly scientized approach to addressing food insecurity.

Under nutritionism, “nutritional composition of food and bad eating habits of individuals come to be considered the problem, rather than living conditions, low wages, lack of land and other productive resources, or rising food prices” (5).

But while nutritionism is certainly responsible for the diagnosis of the third world’s food problem as a nutritional one, it is only in combination with widespread neoliberalization that the solution to the problem came to be cast in terms of fortification and biofortification. Neoliberalism encouraged a market-based solution in line with an ideology of global trade as the best way to provide affordable food to the world’s poor. Thus solutions to micronutrient deficiencies “became synonymous with the consumption of nutrient-enriched products offered by the market” (11).

The book is structured to first develop the theoretical context for Kimura’s critique on global malnutrition and hunger alleviation policies in Chapter 1 and then provide historically and geographically specific cases to support her arguments in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 serves to emphasize the historically contingent nature of the representation of malnutrition and the food problem. She develops the concept of “charismatic nutrients” to demonstrate how discourses about the food problem have changed from the 1960s to the present day as a factor of social, political and economic factors, not simply as a matter of changing scientific knowledge. In Chapter 3 she dissects the “micronutrient network” that supplies fortified and biofortified foods to the world’s poor by investigating the global politics of hidden hunger. She reveals the role of the World Bank and similar lending organizations in advocating fortification as a favored intervention because of its good fit with neoliberal ideology.

Chapters 4 through 7 examine anti-hunger initiatives in Indonesia as an example of how such interventions occur in practice, beginning by situating her study in the historical evolution of Indonesian food and nutrition policy. She presents individual commodity studies grounded in historical analysis and ethnographic fieldwork in Chapters 5, 6, and 7. Each chapter looks at a different type of intervention: mandatory fortification in the case of wheat flour, voluntary fortification in the case of baby food, and biofortification in the case of golden rice. She shows how these interventions are united under a discourse of nutritionism and an ideology of neoliberal market-based solutions.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book to the field of food studies is Kimura’s strong feminist approach, through which she reveals the highly gendered nature of hidden hunger policies and practices. She raises crucial questions about how casting the problem of hidden hunger as a technical matter requiring expert intervention has simultaneously brought attention to women as innocent victims of nutritional ignorance, shamed them for not providing proper nourishment for their children, and silenced their ability to contribute their perspectives despite their intimate knowledge of the experiences of malnutrition and the daily challenges of feeding their families. The alternative that she offers is a radical departure from scientized mainstream food insecurity discourses and draws upon the work of grassroots social movements such as Via Campesina. This alternative requires not only new solutions but a new reframing of the problem itself not as one of micronutrient deficiency or even of hunger but, instead, of “food sovereignty.” Most of all, it begs for recognition of that which is truly hidden by the “scientific triumphalism” of hidden hunger: discourses that are the social, political, and economic foundations of such hunger and issues that can be addressed “only by listening to people’s—and particularly women’s—voices” (171).


Jessica Loyer has a background in history and anthropology with a focus on foodways and migration and an interest in the intersection of food, health, and values. She is currently a PhD candidate in Food Studies at the University of Adelaide, working on a project researching the significance of superfoods as both a health food trend and as global agricultural products. She can be found on Twitter @jessloyer.

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