Brazil develops 'superfoods' to combat hidden hunger

In less than 10 years, consumers throughout Brazil will have access to eight biofortified "superfoods" being developed by the country's scientists. A pilot scheme is under way in 15 municipalities.

Biofortification uses conventional plant-breeding methods to enhance the concentration of micronutrients in food crops through a combination of laboratory and agricultural techniques.

The goal is to combat micronutrient deficiencies, which can cause severe health problems such as anaemia, blindness, impaired immune response and development delays. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, micronutrient malnutrition affects 2 billion people globally.

These efforts in Brazil began a decade ago, when the government agricultural research agency, Embrapa, initiated the biofort project as part of an international alliance for the development of crop varieties with higher concentrations of essential micronutrients. Embrapa chose eight foods that are staples of the Brazilian diet: rice, beans, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), cassava, sweet potatoes, corn, squash and wheat.

"We are working on increasing the iron, zinc and provitamin A content. These are the nutrients most lacking not only in Brazil, but in the rest of Latin America and the world as well, the cause of what we call hidden hunger," food engineer and a biofort co-ordinator, Marília Nutti, told Tierramérica*. Iron is key. Half of Brazil's children suffer from some degree of iron deficiency, said Nutti.

The scientists are working on breeding plants of the same species, choosing seeds that exhibit the best traits in terms of micronutrient content.

"This is not transgenics. We want a varied diet. Biofortification attacks the root of the problem and is aimed at the poorest sectors of the population. It is scientifically viable and economically viable as well," she said.

The project is supported by HarvestPlus and AgroSalud, research programmes that are operating in Latin America, Africa and Asia with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank and development agencies.

How much more nutritious are these new foods? The iron content of the beans, for example, has been raised from 50 to 90 milligrams of iron per kilogramme. The cassava, which normally contains almost no beta-carotene, now has nine micrograms of this vitamin A source per gram.

The beta-carotene content of sweet potatoes has been boosted from 10 micrograms per gram to a whopping 115. And the zinc content of rice has been enhanced from 12 to 18 milligrams per kilo.

In Itaguaí, an industrial municipality 44 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, about 8,000 pre-school children are benefiting from these extra-nutritious foods.

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