Tasty, healthy and African: UP plays its part in international project to promote local crops and develop new food products

11 February 2021 by Department of Institutional Advancement, University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria (UP) is representing South Africa in a multinational, cross-continental project that aims to enhance food and nutrition security in Africa, and open the door to export markets.

InnoFoodAfrica is a three-year project focused on South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, but extended to form a multidisciplinary consortium of 20 partners – 15 in Africa and five in Europe. The project is being funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme to the tune of €6,5m (R115,6m), with an envisaged economic impact of €7.5bn (R133bn).

The impact refers to outputs being achieved. If business created after this project was positive in terms of farming and food manufacturing, or if diet-related non-communicable diseases or pollution in the environment were lowered, and bio-based packaging increased, “that could be the impact”, said Professor Naushad Emmambux of UP’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences.

Prof Emmambux, who is also the research leader for food processing at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security – which UP co-hosts with the University of the Western Cape ­– is the principal investigator of the South African leg of InnoFoodAfrica.

UP has been involved from the start. Prof Emmambux wrote the funding proposal with Dr Raija Lantto, principal investigator at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. VTT is now coordinating the project, which began in August 2020.

UP’s Professor Naushad Emmambux (left), principal investigator of the South African leg of InnoFoodAfrica; Professor Riëtte de Kock (centre), who is also part of the project and is colleagues with Prof Emmambux at UP’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences; and Director at UP’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication Professor Shakila Dada, who is working to ensure that no one is excluded from the research because of communication barriers.

One of its goals is to develop new ways to add value to the cultivation, processing and production of climate-smart African crops. “Crops like sorghum, finger millet, teff, amaranth, faba bean, orange-fleshed sweet potato, Bambara groundnut and cowpea have great nutritional value, but they are underutilised due to technological challenges in the preparation of food products and acceptable quality for urban consumers,” said Dr Lantto.

The project is split into seven work packages, which include researching each country’s nutrition status and its link to diet-related diseases, empowering farmers, manufacturing of healthy foods and food ingredients, and creating bio-based packaging that is edible or mostly biodegradable.

InnoFoodAfrica’s ultimate aim, however, is to improve food and nutrition security in Africa, said Prof Emmambux.

More detailed goals include:

  • demonstrating the huge potential of African crops as healthy ingredients in combating both malnutrition and overnutrition;
  • addressing the key bottlenecks of African food value chains such as low productivity and limited access to urban markets;
  • creating opportunities for export; and
  • addressing the needs of vulnerable groups such as malnourished children, pregnant women and adults at risk of obesity.

Besides educating its target groups about improved eating habits, InnoFoodAfrica also wants to increase the diversity of affordable, nutrient-dense and healthy food products based on local crops.

This is one area where UP is playing a big role; by developing new food products. As Prof Emmambux’s colleague at UP, Professor Riëtte de Kock, who is also involved in the project, said: “The nutritional value of uneaten food is zero. A food product may contain lots of nutrients, but if it is not acceptable it will not be of any use. It needs to be both appealing (‘I want to eat it’), and acceptable (‘I consider it as recognisable and appropriate food in my culture’).” Addressing malnutrition in African countries requires nutrient-dense foods that are appealing, acceptable, available, accessible and affordable, she said.

One of the products they are working on is flour from orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. These contain beta-carotene that, when converted into vitamin A in the body, helps boost the immune system. However, these potatoes have a short shelf life of two to three weeks, so the UP team is making flour from them, which expands the number of ways the potatoes can be used. Together with Delphius Commercial and Industrial (CIT) Technologies, they are developing processing equipment that retains more beta-carotene and uses less energy during the drying process.

       

Flour from orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (a project the team is working on) contains beta-carotene that, when converted into vitamin A in the body, helps boost the immune system. Image: www.innofoodafrica.eu

UP has also developed a fat replacer that it has applied to patent. It reduces the fat content of food but keeps its desirable qualities by mimicking its lubrication, in much the same way oil reduces friction and lubricates parts of a machine. Completely natural, it is made from starch, with the addition of about 2% lipids (fatty acids or their derivatives). “People like fatty food because it’s a very nice feeling in the mouth. So if we can make something that tastes similar to fat, but doesn’t have the negative aspect of fat, that is a win,” said Prof Emmambux.

“We are modifying flours that have a high glycemic index (GI) to make them low-GI,” he said. These flours are used to make snacks similar to the popular cheese puffs, but which are high-protein and high-fibre and so especially suitable for children.

InnoFoodAfrica involves a multidisciplinary range of specialists at UP, from food scientists to sensory scientists, nutritionists, agronomists, and agricultural economists. It also includes postgraduate students – six PhD and four master’s students, as well as four postdoctoral fellows.

The project has also extended to the Faculty of Humanities. Professor Shakila Dada, Director at UP’s Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, is applying its strategies, such as graphic symbol supports, to ensure nobody is excluded from the research because of low levels of literacy, or not speaking the language of the researchers.

“Our main role is to ensure that the materials, instructions, surveys and communication about the project are accessible (easy to read) and understood,” she said. She also liaises with the Faculty’s Department of African Languages for project materials to be translated. “This ensures a more inclusive, equitable research agenda, ensuring that participants who may be otherwise marginalised are now included in the research process,” she said.

For more information, see http://innofoodafrica.eu

Image: www.innofoodafrica.eu