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Curtailing Protein Deficiency in Nigeria With Protein Complementation

The World Food Day (WFD) is an international day celebrated every year around the world on October 16, in honour of the date of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1945. FAO is a specialized agency of the UN that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security. 

This year’s #WorldFoodDay marks the 75th Anniversary of the founding of FAO and has the theme, “Grow, nourish, sustain. Together. Our actions are our future.” The aim is to highlight how food and agriculture are an essential part of the response to ameliorating the effect of the COVID 19 pandemic.

FAO is calling for co-operation and solidarity to help the most vulnerable (low-income earners, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating mothers) to recover from the crisis of hunger and malnutrition, by making food systems more resilient and robust so that they can deliver healthy and sustainable diets to all. This year’s theme and aim of the WFD is timely and appropriate for Nigeria, considering the statistics on malnutrition and hunger; especially protein and micro-nutrient deficiency, particularly among children under five years, school-age children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating mothers. Plus, of course, the elderly. 

To mark the day, the FAO seeks to celebrate the people who produce, plant, harvest, fish or transport food. It equally calls on the public to appreciate those that it tagged  #FoodHeroes, who have continued to provide food to their communities and beyond. 

Food is one of the primary needs for life and survival. Adequate nutrition ensures good health and longevity. The process of getting adequate nutrition is always dependent on an individual and family’s feeding habits and pattern. Food habits are developed over time and begin with the family orientation, that is the family and culture one is born into. So, family background, culture and environment are the primary determinants of one’s feeding habits and pattern. Other factors affecting food habits are income, education, health status, food supply, occupation and social status. 

In the recent past, there has been a nutrition transition from the consumption of natural local foods to the consumption of processed foreign/new foods, which are as a result of technological advancement. These processed foods are high in refined starch, fats and sugar.

This trend has been adopted more by the younger generation across all income groups and has now become a fad. Little attention is paid to the nutritional adequacy of these foods and the food processing industry has expanded with its seemly economic benefits. With the advent of the COVID 19 pandemic early this year and the economic downturn, the consumption of these foods, popularly called ‘fast foods’, even among the affluent families, has likely reduced, for economic reasons. This is the time to adjust our food habits to begin consuming more of our locally produced natural foods, especially legumes – soybeans in particular – to boost protein intake and prevent protein deficiency among all age groups. This can be achieved if creative, exciting and innovative recipes are developed and this is where meal complementation with legumes is key. 

Food, apart from being a physical necessity for life, health and wellbeing,   also represents an emotion preference for many. Some meals or dishes are attached to certain moods, particularly in the developed world where food is produced in abundance. For example, we are told that if you are “Bored? Go for ice cream; Sad? Take chocolate. Happy? 

Pizza fits the mood.  

However, in Africa, Nigeria in particular, where the quantity of food available for consumption is highly inadequate, therefore expensive and unaffordable for the majority, even before COVID 19, the situation is now compounded and made most expensive by the pandemic. The economic impact of the pandemic, including job losses, inflation, increased cost of transportation, bad road network, are real. 

What slogan can we develop as an emotional expression for our local foods? We eat to satisfy hunger and to survive and not necessarily to meet nutritional requirements because the majority have poor knowledge of nutrition. We also eat what is available and affordable for economic reasons. Therefore, solving nutrition problems in Nigeria will require a multifaceted approach both at the individual, household, community, industrial and policy-making levels.  

Protein Deficiency, Protein Quality and Disparity in Cost of Protein

Protein is one of the macronutrients. It is unique in function because apart from its functions of promoting growth, replacing and repairing worn-out and damaged tissues, boosting the immune system and offering protections against infections, it is an important component of the blood and hormones. Protein also provides energy in the absence of other energy-giving macro-nutrients – fats and carbohydrates. However, the energy-providing function of protein is not beneficial since when this occurs, it abandons its primary function and leads to muscle wasting. (This is one of the mechanisms used for weight loss by overweight and obese persons). 

The major cause of protein deficiency in humans is inadequate consumption of protein in meals. Proteins can be found in foods of both animal and plant origin (especially in legumes – pulses and oilseeds). In Nigeria, apart from inadequate intake of protein as the primary cause of protein deficiency, high consumption of carbohydrates in the form of cereals (rice, maize, sorghum, millet), tubers and plantain is prevalent. This is manifested in the way we plate our meals. The carbohydrate and other food nutrients on the plate are in the ratio of 5:1. For example, a typical Nigerian plate for lunch of ‘swallow’ or rice-based dish is 80 per cent ‘swallow’ (Eba, Amala, Tuwo or Pounded yam) to 20 per cent soup (containing vegetables, beef/fish and spices) for all ages. For younger children, the beef/fish and soup content is even less than 20 per cent. 

Studies have shown over the years, the prevalence of protein deficiency in Nigeria, especially among the vulnerable stated above (WHO/UNICEF 2001, 2017; NBC 2018; National Protein Deficiency Survey NPDS 2019). This deficiency manifests in the form of low-birth-weight, stunting, wasting, underweight and the burden of infectious diseases, and its complications, as a result of low immunity. There is also the burden of overweight and obesity co-existing with undernutrition. So we have a double burden of disease. However, that is a subject for another day. 

The presence of protein in plants (mainly legumes – cowpea, locally called beans, soybeans, groundnut, lentils, black beans kidney beans, lima beans, jack beans, green peas, almond, cashew nuts pigeon pea, bambara (okpa), melon, sesame seed, oil bean seed, etc.) and animal food sources like meat, seafood, milk, eggs, milk, etc. does not mean that the quality of the proteins from both sources is the same. 

Protein quality is determined by the type of amino acid found in the protein. Amino acids are the basic ingredients used in protein formation. There are about twenty-two amino acids but only nine are essential to children and eight to adults. Most of the essential amino acids are found in animal proteins, while very few of them are present in plant protein food sources. (An Amino Acid is said to be essential if the body cannot synthesize it in the absence of it not being found in the food consumed. An amino acid becomes non-essential if the body can synthesize it from the essential amino acid when it is needed and not present in the food consumed). This makes proteins from animal foods higher in biological value – meaning that animal protein is superior to plant proteins.

Also, animal proteins are more expensive when compared to plant proteins. The reason for the high cost of animal protein is because of the cost and time of breeding and processing before it is ready for sale, or consumption. This takes longer months and years, when compared with plant proteins that take as short as 3-4 months to plant and harvest from the farm. This is the reason why legumes are cheaper sources of protein, more readily available and affordable for most households than meat and seafood.

Legumes grown and sold in the markets all year round in Nigeria are cowpea (popularly called beans), soybean, pigeon peas (fiofio), green peas, groundnut, pigeon pea, African yam bean, bambara, sesame seed and melon. All these legumes contain a significant quantity of proteins; however, soybean stands out as an exception, because its amino acid content is comparable to that of animal protein, both in quality and quantity.

This is precisely why soybean has since been endorsed by FAO as alternative protein in the prevention of protein deficiency in children and pregnant/lactating mothers. Research, both locally and internationally, has also shown that soybean, when consumed generously with other foods, can contribute significantly to the daily body protein needs. 

However, some impediments have been identified by consumers for low consumption: long cooking time, beaning flavour (unpleasant), perceived as adequate only for infants and young children as complementary food, not readily available in the market, among others. This has widened the gap between its production and consumption.

Complementation in Meal Preparation and Consumption

One of the methods of increasing the gap between legumes production and consumption is meal complementation with legumes, particularly soybean. 

The concept of complementary proteins arose from the need to blend plant protein-rich foods with other foods and consume as a meal in one sitting. This complementation, or blending, can be done at the household and industrial levels. If properly implemented, this will boost the consumption of soybean and enhance quality protein intake, boost the health of individuals and families and reduce family food budgets, since soybean is cheaper than meat or fish. 

This technique is more important now, especially in this pandemic when the cost of meat and seafood has increased astronomically and the purchasing power of the populace has reduced drastically. 

Apart from the production of Tofu and soymilk, soybean can be eaten with rice, maize, millet, groundnut, melon (egusi), ogbono, sesame seed, cashew nut, cocoyam, sweet potatoes, yam, plantain, just to mention a few among the richly diverse foodstuffs cultivated and sold in our markets. 

At the household level: To improve the flavour and take of soybean, there is the need to process the whole grain before usage. First, roast the soybean in a pot/pan on fire for some minutes to give it a brown crust and remove the hull. The advantage of roasting is that it improves the flavour, then reduces the beany taste and makes the removal of the hull easier. Mill the bean into fine flour. This soy flour can now be used to complement every other foods prepared and consumed at home. This flour can be further flavoured with ginger and garlic powder to improve the flavour and anti-oxidant content (optional). It is recommended for all age groups (from six months upwards). This soy flour can be added to the following during meal preparation:

  1. Staple foods such as elubo, garri, semo, yam/sweet potatoes/plantain pottage.
  2. Incorporate soy flour or paste into soups, sauces and stews.
  3. Use as soup thickeners in Banga, Nsala and black soups
  4. Use as a composite with cowpea (beans) in making moi moi and akara balls
  5. Mixed with groundnut (peanut butter) to make a paste for pies and sandwiches 
  6. Make composites of different ratios (to your taste) with wheat flour to produce baked products like meat pies, cakes, biscuits, cookies, etc.

At the industrial level: Food processing companies can also contribute in the fight against protein deficiency at the industrial level through developing research, developing composite self- raising flour containing soybean, with comparable texture and quality that can be used to produce confectioneries. Noodles, spaghetti and Macaroni can also be simulated from soybean flour composite to suit the nutrition transition trend of the young people and at the same time boost their quality protein intake. 

In conclusion, specific recipes could be developed by culinary experts from soybean and demonstrated at different for a, to promote its consumption and utilization in the home. These demonstrations should be targeted at women groups and associations because they are in charge of food procurement, meal management and distribution in the homes.

Nutrition Education is also a key point in reducing protein deficiency in Nigeria. This can be facilitated through national orientation messages (on the facts about soybean and its usage) via social media, radio and television using hashtags, jingles, skits, etc.

Advocacy for healthy feeding habits according to age, health and physiological status are also important to take care of the double burden of nutritional diseases. The idea of ‘one message fits all’ is confusing and misleading to the population, hence nutrition quacks have taken advantage of the social media to feed misleading and dangerous information about food and its usage. Professional associations of food and nutrition should champion this advocacy.

This year’s World Food Day celebration will open a definite window in respect of food and nutrition policy, to facilitate the implementation of all the advocated programmes over the years. Its impact on the food chain will be positive in making nutritious food available to all at a reasonable cost and on time. This will positively impact on the protein deficiency situation and reduce malnutrition in Nigeria.

Dr. Beatrice Chinyem Oganah-Ikujenyo is a Nutrition Expert, Home Economist and Chief Lecturer, Department of Home Economics, School of Vocational and Technical Education, Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, Oto-Ijanikin, Lagos.

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