UP grad’s PhD study promises to advance knowledge on malnutrition among children in Africa

Posted on November 05, 2020

Completing his PhD in Food Science at the University of Pretoria (UP) was not only a momentous occasion for Dr James Makame, but it could also make a positive difference in the lives of children suffering from malnutrition.

Through his research topic, ‘The eating quality of infant foods – perhaps the missing link for solving child malnutrition in Africa’, Dr Makame found that incorrect preparation of most African indigenous infant porridges could lead to protein-energy malnutrition.

“Child malnutrition continues to rise in African communities; one of the reasons is that many African infants are started on more solid foods during the complementary feeding period,” explained Dr Makame, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences who graduated with his PhD during UP’s recent virtual spring graduation ceremonies.

“In many instances, such foods cause some feeding difficulties because of their limited oral processing (chewing and swallowing) capabilities,” he added. “During this period, growth problems often begin to show, indicating that the quality of foods could be an important contributing factor. In Africa, most children depend on traditional foods, consisting of porridges prepared from maize, sorghum, millet or cassava. The challenge of complementary food’s quality sparked the beginning of an exciting academic journey for me.”

Under the supervision of Professor Riëtte de Kock and Prof Naushad Emmambux, internationally renowned researchers in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, Dr Makame explored the relationship between the quality of African indigenous complementary porridges and the nutritional outcomes in infants and young children.

“Using the tools of rheology [the study of the flow of matter] and sensory science, my study revealed that most African indigenous infant porridges based on crops such as maize, sorghum and cassava – if prepared/cooked at the solids content (flour rate) necessary to provide adequate energy and protein for healthy growth – were not optimally suitable for infants. The porridges had inappropriate oral texture quality, being too thick, sticky, slimy and not easy to swallow. Infants are unable to chew and successfully process foods that are too thick. As a result, mothers prepare very thin porridges that infants can easily consume, but such porridges have very limited nutrient content. This could lead to protein-energy malnutrition.”

The findings of Dr Makame study promises to advance scholarship on child nutrition, and might help to shape policy for better food security among African children.

“Graduating with my doctoral degree in Food Science (Food Chemistry and Sensory Science) gave me such pride in myself, my networks (social and academic), my family and children, my mentors and research leaders,” he said. “I have always loved science. Having initially trained as a science educator at the University of Zimbabwe and taught a few years prior to enrolling for a Food Science undergraduate degree, I knew I would achieve something noteworthy. However, I never imagined it would mean getting this far, and would be such a phenomenal achievement.”

For Dr Makame, obtaining a doctoral degree serves as a source of inspiration for his community. “It meant inspiring families in my community and my networks, especially the young, to say that your destiny in life must never be defined by your present station and the limitations resulting from your circumstances. God has a way of holding our hands and graciously taking us in the direction of our aspirations and accomplishments, one step at a time, and with amazing faithfulness. Embedded in this euphoria though, is a deeper sense of understanding and appreciation that I could not have done it all by myself. Each PhD journey is unique for each person, and every success story is just the tip of the iceberg.”

- Author NAS

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