25,000 Einsteins: The forgotten story of a mineral that fueled global prosperity

This week, the World Health Assembly will meet in Geneva to discuss progress against key health indicators including iodine deficiency (ID). Sounds technical, niche, boring? As world leaders meet this same week in Davos, Switzerland’s experience shows us that good nutrition can change the course of human history.

In the early 1900’s, parts of Switzerland suffered from high incidences of ID. Severe ID in pregnancy is one of the leading causes of poor cognitive development and physical disabilities among children, including goiter: the visible swelling of the thyroid gland. To give you a sense of the scale of ID during this time, around 60% of children in the areas of Bern and Zurich had goiter.

The average IQ of someone with ID is roughly 13 points lower than without ID. But after iodized salt and tablets were introduced in 1915, IQs increased, and goiter in children was all but erased. Today, more than 94% of households use iodized salt. The collective increase in average IQ of those children in Bern and Zurich is the equivalent of adding more than 25,000 Albert Einsteins to the Swiss population.

Think about that. Switzerland consistently ranks at the very top of World Economic Forum lists in terms of competitiveness and innovation. Where would this world leader be without good nutrition?

Government health officials in Ghana test the iodization levels of salt.

Sadly, the WHO has highlighted that, despite remarkable progress over the last few decades, people in 21 countries around the world continue to have insufficient iodine intake. And it is estimated that nearly 50 million people suffer from some degree of ID-related brain damage.

Imagine, for just a moment, that you were born without enough access to this important nutrient. Imagine how that would impact your future. Now imagine 50 million more potential doctors, scientists, and pioneers who weren’t given the chance at their best start in life just because they didn’t have access to something as simple as iodized salt.

Malnutrition is devastating for everyone suffering from it, but bigger than that, it is undermining the potential of all of us to prosper. How can we expect the world to tackle the great challenges it faces today, and weather the untold storms of tomorrow, when we leave so many of our very best behind?


© Jason Tuinstra