A new ready-to-eat twist on old grains

Besides having to plough the family fields, fetch water and fire wood, rural women also spend a significant amount of time preparing food for their family and children. These women need a solution to alleviate some of their burdens and at the same time reduce malnutrition, particularly among the young children they are raising. 

A locally produced nutritious ready-to-eat composite meal produced from locally available indigenous grains using non-traditional low cost processing methods — the focus of my research at the University of Pretoria — could be a possible solution to the malnutrition situation in rural African communities. 

Meal 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. 

We hope that the product will not only just help children nutritionally: the instant meal has the potential of being produced by small-scale rural farmers in the communities where the people need it the most. The aim is to try and simulate the more expensive, industrialised ways of producing instant foods by using low-cost technologies that can be adopted by small-scale farmers. This could become a new revenue stream for these farmers. 

Traditionally, ready-made fortified food products are made through a number of processes such as mixing, rolling, slitting, steaming, cutting, frying, cooling and packing. These processes are either mechanised and energy-intensive, or require high labour costs. To produce our indigenous meal, we have found extrusion cooking and micronisation to be the most adaptable and energy efficient production methods, with minimal capital cost compared to the industrial processing methods. 

Extruded sorghum flour is mixed with micronised cowpea flour: this involves milling the sorghum grain and cooking it in a specialised high-temperature barrel (the extruder) for a short period of time, while the cowpea grain is cooked using infrared waves in a process called micronisation. 

Future studies will look at how these technologies can be developed at an affordable price for small-scale rural farmers.

But will people in rural communities eat ready-made meals that, although made from traditional food, are different to what they are used to? What form, taste and smell will help introduce these foods into a population group that desperately needs the protein that they cannot afford? That is what the next stage of our study aims to find out.

Nokuthula Vilakati is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria.

This publication is the culmination 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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