M&G's Science Voices

#Science Voices: A new ready-to-eat twist on old grains

A locally produced nutritious ready-to-eat composite meal produced from locally available indigenous grains using non-traditional low cost processing methods could be a possible solution to the malnutrition situation in rural African communities. Nokuthula Vilakati, a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria, does research on this.This is her story in the Mail & Guardian’s Science Voices supplement:

cowpeaMeal preparation in rural household is the task of women, who have to ensure that there is a cooked meal at every meal occasion. Women go through this practice at least three times a day and it is made even more challenging by limited family resources and food. Because money is always scarce, the mainly cereal-based meals, which contain little or no micronutrient-dense animal food sources, are often watered down to make them go further. This practice further reduces the meal’s nutritional quality.

The situation in Sekhukhune is not unique; it is common in many rural areas in South Africa and other developing African countries. Food shortages and a lack of the dietary diversity contribute to the increasing number of “protein energy malnutrition” cases among infants and young children in developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, more than half of the annual child deaths in developing countries are due to nutrition-related diseases.

For many of these poor households, the ability to access and afford pre-prepared nutrient-fortified foods is unimaginable. They have no choice but to rely on the available indigenous staple foods such as sorghum, cassava and millet, prepared using traditional preparation methods. These methods, which have been used for generations, include malting, soaking, fermentation and a variety of cooking processes such as boiling. They are all time intensive when used on these indigenous grains.

So far our study at the University of Pretoria has shown that a ready-to-eat composite meal made using pre-cooked indigenous flour has similar nutritional value to foreign convenience foods, such as maize- and soya-based instant meals. Produced from two of the oldest crops in Africa where foreign crops often fail, a sorghum and cowpea ready-to-eat composite meal will have many benefits in rural communities.

This tan-coloured flour in a single-serving packet, when mixed with hot milk or water, offers children between the ages of two and five the energy and nutrients to meet their recommended dietary allowances. Hopefully, since the meal is the same colour as the original sorghum and cowpea, it stands a good chance of being accepted. But, unlike sorghum porridge, this instant meal has 60% more protein due to the addition of the cowpea, which has a high protein content.

There is about 15g of protein in 100g of the meal, in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for pre-packaged food formulations.

Using indigenous grains to make ready-to-eat foods means that they are easily accessible to the people living in rural communities; they are also as nutritious as those manufactured and consumed in developed communities. Also, rural people will be more likely to consume a product that they already know.

For the full article, visit the Mail & Guardian’s Science Voices supplement.


* This article is republished with permission. It was part of a six-month-long Mail & Guardian project, called Science Voices, to teach postgraduate science students how to turn their academic writing into something the public can read and enjoy.


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