After a recent visit to South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, I feel that it is necessary for me to expand on this subject.
Close to a billion people suffer from hunger, and malnutrition has implications for all of the UN Millennium Development Goals.
But if we are serious about improving nutrition, at a minimum we need to:
- Remunerate producers on nutritional content, rather than yield. Deep ploughing, monoculture and artificial fertilisers have conspired to reduce the nutritional content of our food. A growing plant takes up to 60 minerals from the soil. Fertilisers put three back – N, P & K.
- Eat fresh, local and seasonal. ‘Dig for Victory’ was the successful wartime mantra that called for everyone in Britain to keep an allotment. In Southern Africa, rural people used to grow a little maize (plus sorghum, millet, ground nuts, pumpkin, sweet potato and cabbage), pound it locally (whole grain) and eat it as part of a balanced diet that included wild spinach, hibiscus shoots and guavas.
- Stop refining grain. In Southern Africa, refined maize has become the staple food. The milling process removes the husk (roughage), the membrane (vitamins) and the germ (omega fats, vitamins and minerals). What is left (empty calories) is sold for human consumption. We forget that it was polished rice that caused the fatal disease, beriberi (thiamine deficiency), and that it was the introduction of the National Loaf (wholegrain) in wartime Britain that helped to ensure that, by the end of the war, the UK was healthier than it had ever been. Nearly 70 years on, it is disconcerting to read in the British Food Journal, Volume 44, 4 of 1942:
The unanimous verdict of those who are best qualified to express an opinion supports the conclusion that adequate nutrition is the prime requirement for the physical well-being of mankind. It is deplorable, therefore, that so little has been done hitherto in the sphere of national welfare to support the findings of science in favour of the more adequate loaf which has been so powerfully advocated for years. It is no exaggeration to state that the ‘white loaf’ has been a real impediment to an improvement in the hygienic development of the growing child, more especially those of the poorer section of the community for whom bread is the main food. As the much impoverished wheat of the ‘white loaf’ is a matter for considerable national concern, it is an anomaly that it should be permitted, seeing that similar impoverishments of natural foodstuffs (such as the watering of milk) have long been punishable by law.
- Ban trans fats. We used to be taught that margarine was healthier than butter. I am referring here to the margarine of the day, which still abounds in many parts of the world. We now know that this trans fat is vastly inferior to butter and extremely dangerous to health.
- Seriously reduce our consumption of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fat and salt. In rural Africa, diabetes, high blood pressure and ischaemic heart disease used to be extremely rare. They have now reached epidemic proportions, and sugar (fructose), saturated fat and salt are the culprits. We should traffic light label all processed foods. The FSA in the UK supports this.
- Stop filling the bellies of hungry children in the third world with refined cereal (CSB) or products that are high in fat and sugar (Plumpy’Nut). Plumpy’Nut contains powdered milk (30%), sugar (28%), peanut butter (25%), cottonseed oil (15%) and vitamins and minerals (as chemical isolates). The dangers of high levels of sugar and fat are now so well understood that the UK Government bans all advertising to young children of such products. André Briend, its creator, states that Plumpy’Nut does contain a lot of sugar and fat, but argues that it is designed for short term use in severe acute malnutrition (SAM). I accept that Plumpy’Nut has a place in such emergency situations, but this is not how it is being promoted.
- Stop believing that mid upper arm circumference (MUAC) and body mass index (BMI) are useful measures of nutritional status. MUAC correlates with risk of death in SAM, but increases in BMI or MUAC in the moderately malnourished tell us nothing about nutritional status, unless we believe that fatter kids are healthier kids.
- Stop believing that we can correct micronutrient deficiencies by adding these to food in the form of chemical isolates, courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry. GAIN has been doing this in South Africa for years and has not addressed the problem.
The typical shopping basket in Southern Africa today contains refined maize meal, refined white/brown bread, white sugar, cooking oil and traditional margarine. People everywhere need a diet that is based on whole grains. It should be low in fat and sugar. It should contain all the vitamins and minerals that would ideally be sourced from fruit and vegetables in a form that is bioavailable.
Geoff Douglas, CEO – Health Empowerment Through Nutrition