Reimagining Food Aid: It's a far-reaching and hugely ambitious project, but a new U of S initiative could one day substantially reduce the terrible toll of malnutrition

Think of food aid and images of sacks of grain and other basic foodstuffs spring to mind.

But Mike Nickerson thinks of very different things — a high-caloric paste, a cereal that can also be ground into flour, ‘just add water’ porridge, and an emergency ration food bar that can be ground up to fortify other foods.

“Our goal is to develop food-aid products with enhanced nutritional properties with the right blend of amino acids, but also things like omega-3 oils to help with brain development and antioxidants in concentrated forms to provide additional health benefits,” says the associate professor of food and bioproduct sciences.

A protein expert who speaks enthusiastically about “opening up” proteins via micronization and “fermenting” them with enzymes, Nickerson is one member of a large and eclectic group of researchers and collaborators in Canada and Ethiopia. There are other food scientists; specialists in agri-business, policy, nutrition and food processing; and food-aid experts on the team. It will eventually include professors and students from Ethiopia’s Mekelle University and local residents who will ultimately benefit from these fortified protein-based food products.

“I’ve worked on big projects, but nothing this big,” says Nickerson. “Bringing all these people together is challenging, but it’s also really rewarding. We look at this as a foundation for something bigger.”

Big is an apt word. Worldwide, it’s estimated that poor nutrition accounts for almost half of all deaths of children under age five — more than 2.5 million every year. Countless millions more suffer lifetime afflictions from malnutrition, including stunted growth because of poor bone development; impaired organ function ranging from weakened hearts to kidney and brain disfunction; compromised immune systems; and micronutrient deficiencies that can lead to anaemia, rickets, scurvy, and other ailments.

“There are a whole bunch of malnutrition-related diseases,” says Nickerson. “They all have a long-term impact on human health.”

Major funding for the $1.7-million project came from the Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S.

“The primary mission of the institute is to increase crop productivity and resiliency,” says Bob Tyler, the institute’s former managing director. “However, food security is a very complex issue, and can be achieved only by ensuring access for all to affordable, safe, and nutritious food. This project addresses some of the non-production challenges related to food security — improving the nutritional status of at-risk populations in particular.”

Those challenges go far beyond food chemistry and encompass economics, supply chains, consumer marketing, and even politics. Which is why, right from the get-go, this initiative has been designed to function from the ground up.

Despite all their differences, Ethiopia and the Canadian prairies are both farm country, with wheat, barley, pulses, and flax among their key crops. Increasingly, food aid agencies such as the UN’s World Food Program view local food production and processing as critical to Third World food security.

So the first step is how to use locally grown foods to make more nutritional products.

“We’re starting by looking at what is the best blend of pulses and cereals,” says Nickerson. “Is it chickpeas and oats? Lentils and barley?

“For instance, pulses are high in lysine but have low levels of methionine, whereas it’s the opposite for cereals. A population that only had access to wheat or rice wouldn’t have the right levels of nutrition going into their bodies and would start experiencing malnutrition because they wouldn’t be getting the right micronutrients needed for good health.”

Diseases associated with malnutrition can also affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, so researchers at the University of Manitoba are conducting animal trials to look at how easily various protein blends can be digested. Other researchers will work with Saskatoon company InfraReady Products that uses a heat treatment called micronization. The process not only makes proteins more digestible, but reduces microbial loads and extends the shelf life of products.

“Once we have a good handle on the ingredient profile, then we’ll move into the product development phase,” says Nickerson. “We’ll be working with the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre and looking at the impact of extrusion cooking (a high-heat process that simultaneously cooks and dries a product) on the digestibility and formulation of these products.”

Adding omega-3 oils from flax is also on the list. Canadian stores have many products with this healthy fatty acid. But for food aid purposes, you have to store them “for one or two years without refrigeration,” he notes. When it comes to fruit phenolics (aka antioxidants), the challenge is ensuring they remain bioactive.

There are also the intertwined issues of technology transfer, economics, supply chains, and logistics. While these fortified foods could be manufactured here and shipped overseas, the researchers want to use processing technology suitable for a country like Ethiopia. Having local production would bolster both food security and development of a local food manufacturing sector which could, in turn, lead to these fortified ingredients being used in other Ethiopian food products. (The country has a small but growing food-processing sector, with flour, biscuits, and baked goods among its leading products.)

And then there’s the matter of taste.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how healthy the product is — if people don’t like it, they won’t want to eat it,” says Nickerson. “Even in these hard-hit regions, people have to like the way a product tastes.”

This is where researchers at Mekelle University in northern Ethiopia come in — they will assist in product development and work with community groups to conduct taste testing.

“We’ve already had a couple of people go over on fact-finding missions and one of the surprises was that in Ethiopia, there’s a widespread belief that food sold in packages is healthier than a fresh product sold in the marketplace. It’s sort of a reverse mentality to here.”

All in all, it is a massively ambitious undertaking, which is why Nickerson talks of this project being just the start of a long journey. But he also hopes it will be a model for an entirely new way to approach big and complex issues.

“You often hear of a science cluster, but we’re bringing together academics, food companies, processors, NGOs, and community groups,” he says. “I see this leaving a legacy that shows how to bring different sectors together, work collaboratively, and tackle more ambitious projects than researchers could ever do on their own.”

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