A bite-sized solution to reduce malnutrition in South African children is being launched today (22 March 2000) in Durban by the Medical Research Council.

Despite school feeding schemes, the MRC has discovered that many children still have micronutrient deficiencies and are missing the key vitamins A, E and iron which are essential for growth and development.

The cookie, the carotino-nutritional biscuit, has been subjected to four years of scientific tests. The results of the research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, prove that children eating the fortified cookies showed substantial health improvements.

Within 12 months, vitamin A deficiency was reduced from 40% to 12%, and anaemia was reduced from 27% to 13%, says Dr Spinnie Benadé of the MRC. A year after the implementation of the biscuit, lower absenteeism rates and improved school performance were also clearly demonstrated by MRC researchers.

Micronutrient deficiencies, which are widespread in South Africa, affect the mental development and learning ability of schoolchildren. Benadé points out that there is no point pumping money into the education system if children are still disadvantaged by malnutrition.

“The national figure for vitamin A deficiency is up to 30%. This means that one in every three children in primary school is deficient and in smaller children, it’€™s even worse,” says Benadé.

The biscuit was developed after Benadé received a letter from the headmaster of a school in Ndunakazi, rural Kwa-Zulu Natal, Michael Phungula.

“He was convinced that the poor performance of the children in his school was due to a lack of something ‘€“ and that something had to do with the nutritional status of the children in his care.”

Despite the fact that the school already had a feeding scheme and pupils received a cooked meal five days a week, the MRC’€™s researchers found that many children still had micronutrient deficiencies.

Benadé decided on the novel idea of fortified biscuits because a biscuit is seen as a snack rather than a meal. A danger of school feeding is that parents may simply reduce the number of meals provided for children at home.

“Children love biscuits,” says Benadé. “The streets are lined with street vendors selling biscuits with nothing but low-quality flour and sugar in them. This type of cheap biscuit is one of the fastest growing products available.”

The MRC’€™s carotino-nutritional biscuit, will also be cheap. It costs 50c (or R10 a month) to provide a child with three biscuits per day which would be enough to address the three main micronutrient deficiencies.

According to Bernadé, the biscuit is healthy not just because it is fortified, but because it is made from only the best available ingredients.

“To sell biscuits cheaply, they use hydrogenated fat. This contains trans fatty acids which have been implicated in growth retardation and cardiovascular disease.”

The secret ingredient in the new MRC biscuit is non-hydrogenated red palm fat which contains no trans fatty acids and is naturally rich in vitamins A and E.

“The biscuit contains only natural (non-synthetic) vitamins and also has no artificial preservatives or colouring. It tastes like any other shortbread biscuit,” says Benadé.

Bernadé hopes to convince the Department of Health that unlike other fallacious claims regarding fortified foods, this biscuit really does eliminate micronutrient deficiencies.

“We cannot tell the government what to do. But we are hoping they will introduce it as part of the school feeding scheme, especially in the poor rural areas,” says Benadé.

The carotino-nutritional biscuit will carry the MRC logo on it as a guarantee of quality. – Health-e News Service.


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