The President of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Professor Ignatius Onimawo, in this interview with GRACE AZUbuIKE, applauds the cassava bread initiative of the government and says the product is healthier and has more food value than the all-wheat bread Nigerians eat. He also wants the National Assembly to hold a public hearing on the issue in order to correct the misgivings about the bread.
With food fortification, are we on the right path in addressing the nutritional deficit in Nigeria?
Well, you fortify food for so many reasons. First of all, when you observe a gap, either in particular micro-nutrient as it relates to deficiencies you find in the populace, then you think of ways by which you can remedy that. For instance, we three different levels: supplementation in which the micro nutrient in question is given in the form of capsules or tablets or added in some food for children.
But that is not sustainable because it is so expensive to import such micro nutrient dense, either powders or capsules. However, the second option is fortification. In fortifying food, we look at a particular food that we believe is available to a majority of the people.
And one thing with that is, if you have a centrally processed food system like you have in developed counties, it is easier for people to make that demand. But in Nigeria you realize that many of our foods are not centrally processed. So, the only foods that are fortified right now are the flour, the wheat flour, and the maize flour in the form of semolina, you also have the vegetable oil, the sugar and then you have the salt that is iodised.
These are centrally processed to some extent; therefore, it is easier to use them as a vehicle for fortification. But you know, many Nigerians do not eat these foods as stable.We are thinking of a situation where you have small holders within each community; for instance, where they make maize flour within a community, where they do rice mill and those kind of small holders within communities, you can give them the fortification.
That was demonstrated in Adamawa State about two years ago. It could also help to add to the nutrient that is deficient to the food, particularly micro-nutrient; that is the focus of food fortification. But again there another option: we call the dietary diversification which is the best option in which case the person gets all the nutrients from his diversified diet that he or she consumes. If you can combine them appropriately to have an adequate diet, then all the micro-nutrients will be available.
But something happened recently in Nigeria which we need to celebrate - the issue of biofortification, where cassava that contain yellow flesh was found to contain adequate carotene which are the major source of Vitamin A. I was at the celebration in Umudike, Abia State when it was launched.
There is no home in Nigeria where cassava products are not consumed. If we can develop that in such a way that the cassava is naturally fortified with Vitamin A, it will become our source of carbohydrate foods. Maybe for garri, fufu or whatever, you may wish to prepare your food with cassava products, then, indirectly, you are taking in enough Vitamin A such that you do not need to bother so much about other sources because cassava products are well known in Nigeria and there is no where they are not consumed. It is breakthrough in a way for the Nigerian people.
But some say comparing cassava flour cannot be compared to wheat flour in terms of quality; is that right?
I must say that I was alarmed when I saw it on television, where a motion was moved in the House of Representatives and some information was provided to the extent that cassava was food that will lead to increase in diabetes. There were a lot of information that were given which to my mind should not have been, because in the first instance, the prevalence quoted from that report that the diabetes rate in Nigeria is between 20-30 per cent is completely untrue.
The diabetes rate in Nigeria is less than 10 percent. In fact, we have not done a recent survey; that was just a projected percentage. The last survey was done around 1992 and it was not even a nationwide survey and it put the diabetic rate at 2.5 percent. From 1992 till now, there is projection - that it must have increased up to about 9.5 per cent. So the issue of the issue of 20, 30 percent does not arise.That one is not true.
The other is that the person who was moving that motion said that cassava flour, when added to wheat flour to make bread, increases the rate of diabetes; it is completely untrue because when we talk about diabetes, there two things you talk about, which are the glacemic index and the glacemic load.
Now, foods with low glacemic index are foods that diabetics are advised to consume and cassava is not among the high glacemic index food. In fact, wheat flour has high glacemic index from between 70-72, while cassava has a glacemic index between 46 and 60. That is the range for cassava.
Having that at the back of our minds, it then means that when you mix cassava flour with low glacemic index with wheat flour that has high glacemic index, the blend that will come with the glacemic index will come down.
So in essence, if we are going to attack diabetes, then the mix of cassava flour and wheat flour is even the right step to start with because by the time you combine cassava flour with that wheat flour, the glacemic index of the overall product will come down, because that of white bread is 70 as at now. So when you bring cassava flour into it, and it may bring it down to about 60, thereby giving a better product that will now fall within the range of medium glacemic index food.
There was a survey that was conducted in Kenya and, in that survey, they found that out of over 1,380 people that were surveyed, they got their energy or calorie intake from cassava.
About 86 per cent of that number got their calorie intake from cassava and none of them was diabetic. In the same survey, among those who were diabetic in that community, they found that they rarely took cassava. They ate other sorts of food. So cassava is not implicated as the causative effects for diabetes; that is the point I am making.
What is your advice to the government and the people?
My advice is that the policy of government on the inclusion of cassava flour into wheat flour for the production of bread is a step in the right direction. And I thought the argument were going to be, maybe the crumb structure of the bread, maybe the weight of the bread - these were going to be issues because of the fact that there was no glutting in cassava flour. But that is not the argument.
Even then, the American government, through the programme we had in Lagos about two weeks ago, has shown that even in such situations where you use a product that does not contain glutting, you should add about five percent soya beans flour to that particular formulation, then the loaf file improves and therefore the crumb structure of the bread also improves. And we have communities in Nigeria to produce soya beans; Benue State is an example.
I think it is another opportunity for government to encourage soya beans producers so that they include five percent soya beans flour along with the 40 per cent of cassava flour to the wheat flour to produce our bread. And that is where we have several advantages.
One, the glacemic index will be lower because the glacemic index of soya bean is lower than that of cassava. Soya bean contains a lot of protein and protein will be good in bread. The crumb structure will be fine and the taste will be better, and it will be more nourishing than what we have now.
I want to state that there is need for nutrition education in Nigeria. The Federal Government should partner with the Nutrition Society of Nigeria and other institutions so that we can take this message to the grassroots and to every Nigerian, even to the National Assembly.
In fact, is good that the National Assembly member raised this issue and I think, perhaps, he had the interest of Nigerians at heart: he didn’t want Nigerians to become diabetic and, therefore, now that the information has come, it is good that they too be informed about this so that they will be better placed to serve the Nigerian public.
What do you think the lawmakers should be looking at with respect to nutrition and health and with specific reference to this issue of cassava flour and food fortification?
At this point in time, it is the cassava flour for bread making.
Do you think the effort of the National Assembly is appreciable in fast-tracking the issue of cassava bread?
What has happened is the neglect of nutrition by past governments. We have made several attempts in the past for government to again look into the issue of nutrition. I understand that during President Obasanjo’s regime - at about about the time he was about going, he made a pronouncement that he had formed the National Nutrition Council which is to be inaugurated thereafter.
As we speak now, five years after, that council has not been inaugurated and that council was to be a hub that will link to other stakeholders in the area of nutrition. Within the National Assembly there are various sub-committees. There are some on health.
This is the time for them to engage professional associations to have nutrition society, food science society and other societies that are professionally based.
There is need for us to have a common ground to look at some of the issues. A lot of researches have been done. Even trying to look at the value chain of these products, a lot has been done. For instance, sorghum is one of the crops that the present Minister of Agriculture is looking into.
We have done some researches on sorghum where sorghum has been used to produce breakfast cereals that looked like Quaker Oat. It was better nutritionally and the taste was nice. But they are on the shelf because there is no collaboration between research institutes, universities, the industries and the public. So that gap has been there. And the various sub-committees of the National Assembly, when they have an issue that is so hot, they normally call for a public hearing.
I will advise that they call for public hearing in this kind of matter. They should invite all the professionals, including the medical doctors that are treating diabetic patients. Let them come and let’s discuss this matter so that Nigerian people will be better informed.This is a matter of science; it’s not a matter of conjecture or what a particular person thinks.
There is need to have a committee on nutrition because the whole world has realised that nutrition is development, because if a child is not properly nourished, that child is going to under-develop.Our legislators are not aware of this , so it is an opportunity to draw their attention.
With all this heat generated over cassava and diabetes, many people may start avoiding cassava-based foods even though they have been consuming them over the years; how would this awareness impact on Nigerians?
The Minister announced at the weekend that he wanted to really upgrade the nutrition desk of Ministry of Agriculture Ministry to be a programme desk.
Now, when that begins to happen, how would you want the Nutrition Society of Nigeria and then the professionals generally in this area to work with the ministry to make things happen in the right way?
When we were looking at the Nigerian agricultural investment programme sometime ago, that took us to Dakar, Senegal, to look at the agric programme under NEPAD, and the reason for that meeting was to look the nutritional component of the programme, because we found that the agric programme has not been well articulated when it comes to the issue of nutrition.
So, if the minister wants to now make the nutrition aspect a programme, it is a very good development, and I think this is good.
We will encourage the minister to do so, and we, as a society, are ready to cooperate and collaborate. We are ready to give him the data of nutritionists in Nigeria, their profile and those that can really work in that arm of the Ministry because we have found out that in communities where foods are produced, are the same communities where we have the greatest issues of malnutrition.
So it’s a paradox. People don’t know what to eat, how to prepare it and so on, so that they could derive the full benefits of the foods they are producing in their communities.
So we need this kind of information and it’s a welcome development for the agric ministry to begin to take nutrition as a major component. The essence of nutrition is to ensure that we have better lives.
Doctors treat the neglect of nutrition, agric people suffer from lack of information on nutrition. They produce it, but they sell it to those who have money while they suffer malnutrition and then go to the doctor. This is not supposed to be; it is supposed to be a collaboration.
Do you think cassava flour in bread has any advantage?
Cassava has many advantages. We can look at it as a dilution factor. The level of glutting will definitely be reduced; therefore, it will become highly diluted and will have no negative effect on those who suffer from allergy.
The impact will be so minimal, so it is a double advantage. Let’s look at the taste, structure and the weight. Every country has its own bread. When I went to Morocco, the bread they made from corn flour is what they eat.
So why must we eat American bread? The Italian doesn’t eat American bread. So, Nigerian bread which is cassava and wheat flour is really nice.