After three years at the Department of Chemical Engineering, Ulf Svanberg was quite tired of heat exchangers and oil refineries and turned to Food and Nutrition Science. But once he got there, he was not particularly interested in finding a smoother way to make ketchup.
As early as the mid-1970’s, he was involved in forming a multidisciplinary group, interested in finding out the actual reasons behind malnutrition in the least developed countries.
Ulf Svanberg together with Serafina Vilanculos, PhD student from Mozambique. Photo: Anna-Lena LundqvistMalnutrition due to lack of food
In the 1970’s and -80’s, it was believed that malnutrition was due only to protein deficiency.
– Later, we realized that malnutrition was mainly due to the fact that people simply didn’t receive enough amounts of nutritious food, Ulf Svanberg says.
– Above all, infants and young children were affected and an important reason was the gruel made of corn. It has to be diluted with a lot of water, and therefore has a low nutritional value. With a smaller amount of water, the gruel becomes more nutritious, but also thicker and much harder for small children to eat.Magic that porridge becomes gruel
Together with the first doctoral student from Tanzania Food and Nutrition Institute, TFNC, Ulf Svanberg found that a nutritious liquid gruel could be made of thick porridge using germinated flour – a flour they named Power flour
– We were standing in the Chalmers lab with the thick porridge that we mixed with a teaspoon of power flour
. And we were fascinated to see the porridge turn into a liquid gruel in just a few minutes! The power flour
, made of sprouted millet or sorghum, contains activated amylase enzymes that will degrade the starch molecules in the thick porridge, and thereby releases water to make it liquid. The use of germinated flour has been a long traditional practice in Tanzania, not however for making weaning foods, but for local beer production.
Power flour mixed in porridge to make gruel – before and after. Photo: Ulf Svanberg
The new method introduced by TFNC and UNICEF/WHO
– We had the opportunity to visit a village where the method would be taught. A few hundred mothers and children had gathered around a large barrel where traditional thick porridge was prepared. Staff from TFNC stirred a few cups of germinated flour into the porridge, which suddenly became a liquid gruel. Each mother then received a small cup of the gruel to give her child and they thought the whole process was pure magic.
The children were dancing and singing
The sprouted flour – Power flour – was given the name kimea in Swahili, which means a sprout that grows big and strong.
– Sometimes when we got to the villages, the school children lined up and started to dance and sing: “Mom and Dad Kimea are coming”.
The method was spread through radio shows and Maternal Health Clinics that distributed instruction manuals in Swahili, showing mothers how to take care of their children, how to make germinated flour and use it to get a nutritious liquid gruel.
– It needed to be easy, the mothers should be able to make the gruel themselves at home in the small hut.
Child drinking gruel made with kimea
. Photo: Ulf Svanberg
Gruel to prevent diarrhea
Another result of Ulf Svanberg’s research is a lactic acid fermented gruel which help prevent small children from being infected with diarrheal diseases. Diarrhea is as big a problem as malnutrition, and poses an acute threat to the child, who might die within a few days.
In the villages, the population traditionally uses the method of producing fermented gruels, and Ulf Svanberg together with one of his doctoral students developed that technique further by using the germinated flour kimea.
– One of our PhD students showed in a number of studies that the most common diarrhea bacteria like shigella, campylobacter, salmonella or toxigenic e-coli did not survive in this fermented gruel. We had then found a way to prevent small children from getting diarrhea due to contaminated gruel.
Traditional methods cures iron deficiency
The researchers also discovered that fermentation together with added germinated flour had a unique ability to break down phytic acid in the gruel – an antinutrient that binds iron and makes it unavailable for absorption. By degrading the phytic acid, the iron becomes more accessible.
– More than half of all young children in developing countries suffer from iron deficiency, which put them in risk of life-long problems. We now discovered means to degrade the phytic acid by a simple modification of traditional cooking methods.
TFNC has the responsibility to educate Health and Nutrition workers to be placed in the regions at Mother and Child Health clinics, informing about the importance about child care and how to prepare nutritious and safe foods for young children with the use of kimea and improved fermentation techniques.
The Tanzanian family shares a meal with corn porridge and vegetables full of vitamin A. Photo: Ellen HedrénFormer PhD students spread the knowledge
From the mid-1980’s to this day, six staff members from TFNC have done their doctoral studies at Chalmers under Ulf Svanberg’s supervision.
All six have stayed in Tanzania or another African country after graduation, and have been able to apply their research findings into practical action. The first doctoral candidate became head of the National Food Research Centre in Botswana. The second became head of TFNC and is also the president’s adviser on nutrition issues. A third became Head of the National Research Council for Science and Technology, and several continued working as heads of departments at TFNC.
One of Ulf Svanberg’s former PhD students is Generose Mulokozi, a specialist in nutrition and vitamin supplementation and a student at Chalmers from 1998 to 2002. At the same time, she worked at TNFC before becoming responsible for a USAID programme devoted to enrich locally produced baby foods with vitamins and minerals. Generose Mulokozi is now in charge of a new programme, covering a large part of Tanzania that focuses on malnourished children under the age of five.
– My research results from Chalmers have been widely used to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition in women and children in Tanzania. Among other things, all children between the ages of six months and five years, receive vitamin A twice a year and vitamin enriched foods, she says.Defining the problems themselves
The success of the research projects, and the fact that they made some real change, is partly due to that the researchers in Tanzania themselves were identifying the health problems related to the diet, says Ulf Svanberg.
– It’s far too common for us to focus on what we think is an interesting research problem, rather than something of relevance to a developing country.
Text: Ragnhild Larsson/Mia Malmstedt