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Soy-Blended Complementary Food Could Prevent Childhood Stunting and Improve Nutrition in Northern Ghana. 

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life is a critical window for nutrition. When infants begin to transition from breastfeeding to solid foods at six months, they require additional nutrients, including more protein. If these nutrition needs are not met, malnutrition at this stage can have lifelong consequences on a child’s cognitive and physical development. Typically, from six months onwards, the nutritional needs of growing infants are filled by weaning or complementary foods which complement breast milk’s nutrients. However, in developing countries, there is overdependence on cereal-based foods that don’t deliver enough essential nutrients to a child. 

Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, identifies Ghana as a focus country for development efforts. Compared with the southern half of the country, northern Ghana experiences significantly higher rates of malnutrition and poverty. The 2003, 2008 and 2015 Ghana Demographic and Health Survey Reports found that 30 to 39 percent of children under five are severely stunted in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions. In 2017, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (Soybean Innovation Lab, SIL) will assess the acceptability and feasibility of a soy-blend complementary food in northern Ghana to support efforts to introduce sustainable early childhood nutrition to the region. 

This study will feature varieties of weaning foods made from soy flour and orange-fleshed sweet potato called ComFa, short for Complementary Food for Africa. The food serves 15 grams of high-quality protein, exceeding the minimum daily requirement for infants under one year old.  The orange-fleshed sweet potato adds Vitamin A, for which northern Ghana is oftentimes deficient. The study will test four different varieties of this food, each with different ingredients: anchovies (called Keta school boys in Ghana), dried moringa (a green-leaved plant high in protein and iron), groundnut, and maize.

Among the array of weaning foods developed by food security projects, this soy-blend complementary food stands out for the quality of its nutrients and the availability of its ingredients. Soy is the only vegetable-based source of high-quality protein in that its amino acid composition creates a complete protein. It is also usually cheaper than animal-based proteins. Dr. Juan Andrade, Research Team Leader and Assistant Professor of Global Nutrition at the University of Illinois, sees the potential in ComFa:

“The combination of soy with other cereals to balance essential amino acid composition of diets along with micronutrients has great potential to address energy and nutrient gaps often observed in infants during the 6 to 18-month period,” Dr. Andrade said. 

“When developing and introducing complementary foods one should think of “ACTS,” which stands for Adequate, Context-specific, Timely, and Safe. Adequacy of complementary foods is not only about nutrient content, flavor, texture and frequency, but also about the time of introduction, safety concerns, and the care and feeding practices,” said Dr. Andrade.  

Both soy and orange-fleshed sweet potato are widely grown in northern Ghana. Soybean farming in northern Ghana is expanding, and the orange-fleshed sweet potato is being promoted in the Northern Region by the Resiliency in Northern Ghana (RING) project. The design of this weaning food positions families to procure the ingredients and prepare the food themselves, leading to healthy, self-sustained, and empowered communities. 

Researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of Development Studies in Ghana, and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute also based in Ghana will partner with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to administer the study in four villages of the three regions of northern Ghana.

Over 90 mothers and their infants will taste-test the weaning food. Another 80 mother-infant pairs will test the feasibility of using this food through a two-week trial. Mothers will be given instructions and ingredients for preparing the food in their own homes, and after two weeks, the mothers will report whether or not they would continue to prepare the food on a regular basis. Through questionnaires and focus groups, Soybean Innovation Lab researchers will study the food’s acceptability – whether infants will eat the food – and its feasibility – whether mothers would prepare the food. If deemed acceptable and feasible, this soy-based complementary food would play an important role in the Innovation Lab’s broader mission of introducing more high-quality protein to regions vulnerable to malnutrition. 

The study will be benefit from the expertise of three Soybean Innovation Lab researchers. Dr. Juan Andrade offers his years of field work experience and expertise in the role of technology to address food and nutrition security in low-income countries. His research focuses on food fortification, point-of-care technologies for assessment of micronutrient deficiencies, and quality of food aid products.

The second member of the team is Ms. Flora Amagloh, a food scientist based at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute in northern Ghana.  She will soon complete her doctorate in food science at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana. Ms. Amagloh has worked extensively in using soy to address malnutrition in Ghana by means of conducting, leading trainings about utilizing soy for human nutrition as well as organizing school feedings to deliver nutritious soy milk to local school children.

Dr. Francis Kweku Amagloh rounds out the team with his expertise in public health nutrition. Dr. Amagloh is the head of the Food Science and Technology Department at the University for Development Studies. His research focuses on life cycle nutrition, and he brings his experience with conducting household-level nutrition studies using available local resources in the local communities of northern Ghana. Dr. Amagloh also brings fieldwork experience by serving as a Research Assistant for the World Health Organization’s anthropometric studies, and he has played a leading role in introducing the orange-fleshed sweet potato to the Ghanaian cuisine. 

The Soybean Innovation Lab’s mission is to provide the technical support for the development of soybean in Africa.  To this end the Innovation Lab introduces, studies, and evaluates the latest soybean-related technologies that support poverty and malnutrition reduction strategies. This nutrition study of a soy-enhanced weaning food provides vital information to advance early childhood nutrition among the rural poor.

To receive more information on the study or to get involved, contact soybeaninnovationlab@illinois.edu