07:14am Thursday 21 September 2017

Research for sustainable aid

Ulf Svanberg is running a number of research projects in collaboration with Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. The research is being conducted together with PhD students from Mozambique. One of the students, Maria Eduardo, explains the aim of her project.

“It involves reducing Mozambique’s dependence on wheat imports and helping the country’s agriculture to make headway.”
Although wheat cannot be grown in Mozambique, the population eats a great deal of bread made from this type of cereal. The habit came with the Portuguese colonials and has been further reinforced by other countries sending their wheat surplus as foreign aid. This has naturally been detrimental to Mozambique’s domestic agriculture.
Ulf Svanberg and Maria Eduardo are working on finding a way, with the aid of local ingredients, to bake bread that is in essence similar to wheat bread. Maria Eduardo explains:
 “In the cities in Mozambique the majority of people eat bread once or twice a day and in many schools the children bring bread with them for lunch.” She says that it is difficult to induce people to break the habit but it seems as if younger people find it easier to accept the new type of bread.
The Mozambique government has also exerted pressure and ordered all bakeries to begin using local ingredients.
The bread Maria Eduardo is now experimenting with is baked using half wheat and half cassava flour. The locally produced cassava, which is a root vegetable, has relatively poor baking qualities and ingredients need to be added to replace, for example, the gluten found in wheat flour. It is gluten that makes the bread rise and gives it volume.
Improving the body’s iron uptake
Another project, which also involves bread, is aimed at increasing accessibility of the iron found in flour. Working on this is another PhD student, Serafina Vilanculos, who is also from Mozambique.
Despite the fact that bread contains a great deal of iron, we only absorb a few per cent.
“Although it is easy for the body to take up iron from animal foods, the children here mostly eat vegetables. This makes them particularly vulnerable,” explains Ulf Svanberg.
Iron deficiency is one of the greatest threats to public health in these countries. The fact that it affects children in particular is serious. Not only does it affect their health when they are young, it can also cause major problems for them later on in life even with a balanced diet. We know that they find it more difficult to keep up at school and have poorer motor skills. By adding malted millet or some other cereal the difficulty taking up iron, which is found in bread anyway, has most likely been alleviated.
“The millet contains an enzyme that can break down the substance that impedes iron uptake. By doing so, it is possible to increase iron uptake without needing to change diet,” explains Ulf Svanberg. “We have also found such an enzyme in a type of yeast isolated from a maize formula in Tanzania, which presents us with a unique opportunity to use it when baking bread.”
Malted millet is also used in beer production and is therefore a readily available ingredient. Serafina Vilanculos is currently working on trials where malted flour could be used in the raising process together with normal baking yeast and the yeast type from Tanzania. Millet also played a major role in Ulf Svanberg’s first major success project in Tanzania, where the enzymes from millet allowed baby formula to be prepared using maize porridge.
The problem in Tanzania was undernourished infants who lived on maize formula. Maize is actually nutritious but when diluted into baby formula it simply becomes too liquid. The children’s stomachs become full before they have managed to take up sufficient nutrition. The simple solution of course is to give them porridge but this is not an option for young infants.
This is where food chemistry comes in. A teaspoon of malted millet in the porridge breaks down the starch and releases water. As if by magic, the porridge becomes liquid, like formula, and yet still retains the nutritional content.
This knowledge has given many young children a better start in life and also saves on water, which often requires a great deal of effort to carry home.
Lack of nutrition the biggest failing
The majority of developing countries have health problems that are in some way related to a lack of nutrition. Without a healthy population, it is difficult for a country’s economy to grow. This is where research can make a major difference. To be of real benefit, however, it is a matter of understanding where the problems lie and what everyday life is like in the countries in question.
“You can’t sit here in your little corner of the world and carry on research without ever having set foot in the country,” says Ulf Svanberg, who has worked in African countries for many years. In his opinion, it is vital to beware of the problematic role facing a researcher working with aid projects.
Ulf Svanberg continues:
“It is crucially important that we help to develop in situ the know-how and skills of the people. In doing so, they can help to focus on the right issues and then help to gain acceptance for the results in such a way that they are implemented in practice.”
“Otherwise, it could easily be the case that they stand there with cap In hand and simply take what’s being offered, even if it happens to be the totally wrong thing.”
Fact file:
Ulf Svanberg: Professor of Food Science
With support from Sida/SAREC, Ulf Svanberg runs research projects in collaboration with Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, as well as in other countries in southern Africa. In Sweden, Chalmers University of Technology is involved as well as the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK). The work is being conducted together with PhD students from the countries in which the projects are being run. After completing their education, the students can return home armed with greater knowledge and expertise.
This article is published in Chalmers Magazine No. 4, 2011.
Chalmers magazine online>>>
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