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Infant food helping babies in Africa

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

University of Georgia food scientists and their colleagues at the University of Ghana, Legon have developed infant foods that have been used to improve the nutritional status of malnourished children in some communities in Ghana.

"A significant subpopulation of children in the region often suffers from extreme protein malnutrition," said Robert Phillips, a food scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Children need protein

Unlike adults in these regions, growing children can't survive solely on cereal-based foods.

"A child's essential amino-acid requirement on a body-weight basis is nearly 10 times that of an adult," Phillips said. "They just can't survive on starchy weaning foods. They have to have additional protein, too."

"These children often develop edema," he said, "which causes their stomachs to swell, making them appear fat when, in fact, they're very malnourished."

These children also often suffer hair loss and loss of hair pigmentation, he said.

"You can spot the children who are in the extreme stages of malnutrition, because they have red hair instead of black hair," he said. "This is just one sign of lack of protein or low protein."

Sometimes cultural practices prevent parents in underdeveloped countries from providing their children a protein food even when it's available, he said.

"For example, some parents won't give the children eggs because they think it will make them want to steal eggs," Phillips said. "Of course, this is not true. But it's an old myth, similar to many still in existence in our own society."

Extending existing work

To address this growing health issue, Phillips and UGA graduate student Yvonne Mensa-Wilmot, a native of Ghana in West Africa, extended previous work on weaning foods.

The principle of protein complementation - the blending of different proteins to optimize the resulting essential amino acid content - was used. Previously in Ghana, a formula called "weanimix," made from crops indigenous to the region, had been introduced.

Phillips and Mensa-Wilmot also used combinations of cowpeas, peanuts, and corn, all staple crops in the area, as well as soybean, a non-traditional crop being promoted for this purpose. The formulas were designed for children 6 to 9 months old and had built-in convenience for mothers preparing it.

The approach was to use computer programs to optimize amino acid profiles of blends. Ingredients were then processed by extrusion cooking, enzyme action, and other approaches to yield ready-to-use formulas that had to simply be mixed with hot water prior to serving. The resulting formulas were extensively analyzed for nutritional and physical properties.

The research project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bean/Cowpea Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP). As part of the collaboration, Mensa-Wilmot traveled to Ghana to survey mothers' responses to the food and their willingness to accept and use it.

Dramatic results

On the weaning formula project, Sam Sefa-Dedeh and Esther Sakyi-Dawson, both with the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Ghana-Legon, have developed other high protein foods. One of their weaning foods is based on the traditional fermented maize dough fortified with cowpeas.

"They conducted the outreach efforts to introduce the food to some villages," said Phillips. In the communities where the fortified food was tested the nutritional status of the children improved dramatically.

In one case, a 2-year old child was so malnourished she was unable to walk. Just a few months after eating the porridge from the fortified fermented maize dough, she was much stronger and able to walk again.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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