Nutritionists and officials are urging the government to step up efforts to boost nutritional standards to cultivate a strong new generation better able to compete on the international stage. Yu Xiaodong, director of the National Development and Reform Commission's Public Nutrition and Development Centre, said the central government should be aware that nutrition was critical to a country's economy and future. He said the US government spent US$60 billion a year on improving the nutrition of its citizens, while the figure in China was negligible, apart from a 'milk scheme for students' plagued by food poisoning scandals. Statistics show 620 million mainlanders suffer from the four most common health problems - obesity, fatty liver, diabetes and high blood pressure - with an unbalanced diet and poor nutrition the major causes. In addition, about 100,000 babies are born on the mainland each year with deficiencies caused by malnutrition. Peng Jiarou, from Peking University's Medical School, also criticised China's lack of attention to nutrition, in contrast with Japan, where the government introduced nutrition laws enforcing a more scientific and balanced diet for its population after the second world war. 'The Japanese experience is worth studying and absorbing for China,' she said last month. A scheme to 'promote nutritional improvement for the public' was recently included in the 11th Five-Year Programme, the first time the issue of nutrition has appeared in the national development guidelines. Professor Yu said his centre was working on China's first enriched-flour standard, to be introduced by October, which nutritionists hope would improve the health of the population. He hoped the state would enforce the compulsory use of enriched flour, as it did with iodised salt in 1978, by drafting a law at the end of the 11th Five-Year Programme in 2010. Enriched flour has nutrients such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron added during the manufacturing process. It was introduced during the second world war in the US and other western countries. 'Compared with taking vitamin supplement pills, or ensuring a varied diet, enriched flour is the most economic and feasible way to improve the nutrition of the whole population,' Professor Yu said. 'Chinese people attach too much importance to the colour, smell and appearance of their food, which has resulted in a big loss in the nutritional value in traditional cooking. In both rural and urban areas, no matter what their economic status, we have found widespread malnutrition,' Professor Yu said.