15 October 2009

Can magic porridge save the world?

Another super-supplemented maize meal has been introduced to the SA market. The hope is that it could fill a nutrient gap among the less privileged. But will it? DietDoc doubts it.


Another super-supplemented maize meal has been introduced to the SA market. The hope is that it could fill a nutrient gap among the less privileged. But will it? Health24's DR INGRID VAN HEERDEN doubts it.

A few times a year, the press announces that a new super-supplemented maize meal has been launched, and that this product will help solve the nutrition problems of our less-advantaged communities.

These products usually consist of standard white maize meal plus some form of protein, mainly soya, and mega doses of a vitamin-and-mineral mix. According to the claims made by manufacturers and advertisements, such products will not only solve all the nutrient problems besetting our population, but will also bridge the nutrition gap.

Recently, another new "power porridge", a mix of maize meal, soya, malted sorghum and high levels of vitamins and minerals, was introduced.

These super-maize-soya-micronutrient products have been doing the rounds since the 1960s, when one of the first of such products, PVM, became available.

PVM (Protein-Vitamin-Mineral) was developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and its formulation was based on many years of meticulous scientific research.

Initially intended for use in clinics, hospitals and other large-scale food-service units, and Government tenders for emergency feeding, PVM has been around for more than 40 years. Nowadays, PVM is manufactured by a private company.

A visit to the PVM website ( ) shows that the original product seems to have morphed into a variety of sports products. Energy bars and products with sporty names like Octane, Reignite and Fusion now dominate the range and are obviously aimed at a totally different market than the original PVM powder, which was designed to give undernourished people a boost.

Good intentions
Most of these maize-meal-soy-mega-micronutrient products are produced with the very best and noble intentions. According to a recent press release for the latest supplemented porridge, the producers were motivated to find a product "to do something tangible about the dismal malnutrition statistics in South Africa".

Way back in the 1960s, this was also the case for PVM.

So, why do products that are rich in nutrients, which could make a valuable contribution to solving the malnutrition problems in South Africa, so often not survive (at least in their original form) and not accomplish their goal?

A question of price
One of the most difficult hurdles that any highly nutritious product intended for the mass market has to overcome is price.

The people these products are aimed at, and who need them most, are the poorest of the poor in our country. These people can barely scrape together enough money every month to buy standard maize meal at a cost of approximately R21.99 per 5kg bag, which works out to R4.40 per kg, let alone special maize meal like the new porridge, which costs R20.00 to R22.00 per kg, or 4.5 times more than standard maize meal.

Is this higher price justified in view of the purported higher nutritional content of the new supplemented porridge?

Perhaps, but it's important to keep in mind that since 2002, all maize meal and wheat flour (including wheat bread) sold in South Africa is also fortified with eight nutrients, namely vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, niacin, folic acid, iron and zinc (DoH, 2002).

Existing fortification of SA maize meal
By Government decree, all standard fortified maize meal sold in South Africa has to be fortified to the extent that an adult who eats a standard quantity per day (e.g. 200g of raw maize meal, which would of course be cooked for consumption) would obtain 25% or more of the RDA for each of the above-mentioned nutrients (DoH, 2002).

The new supplemented porridge, on the other hand, supplies up to 1000% of the RDA per 80g portion (vitamin B12), and it contains plant protein. So, is it better than standard maize meal? Not necessarily:

  • Ingesting an 80g portion of the new supplemented porridge daily (at a cost of R1.60/day, if we use a price of R20/kg) will provide an adult woman with 12.5% of the RDA for protein and between 35% (calcium and magnesium) and 1000% (vitamin B12) of the RDA for the remaining vitamins and minerals, but only 942kJ, which represents approximately 11,2% of the energy an adult woman requires.

    The adult woman will still have to obtain another 7500kJ from other foods to be able to do work and keep her basal metabolic rate (BMR) going. So, the idea that the new supplemented porridge is the total solution to an individual's food requirements is incorrect and can be construed as misleading.

  • Providing such large quantities of vitamins and minerals isn't necessary. The manufacturers of the new supplemented porridge have fallen into the trap of believing that if a small amount of a vitamin or mineral is vital for good health, then massive doses must be even better.

    Current research indicates that this isn't the case and that excessive intakes of certain nutrients, such as vitamin A, can even increase mortality (death). Vitamin A can also be teratogenic in pregnancy (cause birth defects), which is one of the reasons why the Government opted to only add the fortification vitamins and minerals to maize meal at levels that would provide between 25% and 33% of the RDA.

    In addition, persons living with HIV/Aids, who receive antiretroviral treatment, shouldn't take massive doses of certain vitamins and minerals, because these nutrients can counteract the efficacy of the medications.

The lower contents of added nutrients in standard fortified maize meal were calculated to provide amounts that, when added to the percentages of the RDA that the most vulnerable members of our population ingest already (as determined by the National Food Consumption Survey), would ensure an intake approximately equalling 100% of the RDA (DoH, 2002).

The manufacturers could, therefore, probably save a considerable amount of money by not over-supplementing their product and thus make it more accessible to the undernourished.

I hope that all manufacturers of these supplemented maize meals will in future reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals added, and the price, so that their products will actually reach the population that needs the products most.

History has, however, shown that most of these supplemented maize meals don't "save the world", and that many of them eventually disappear off the market or change their approach and concentrate on the sports food market instead.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, August 2009)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

(DoH, 2002. Food Fortification moves into action. 02110509461005.htm)


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