In a world grappling with escalating food security concerns, the imperative to innovate within the realm of nutrition and sustenance has never been more critical. A session on the second day of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences’ first-ever “Research Symposium”, explored food systems and security. One of the presentations came from Professor Naushad Emmambux, who delivered a talk on ‘Innovation to manufacture SMART foods for food and nutrition security’.
Professor Emmambux is a full professor in UP’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences and is a principal investigator (PI) with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS). On 30 August 2023, he addressed an audience comprising scholars, researchers, and individuals devoted to the advancement of natural and agricultural sciences.
In his presentation, he pointed to the strategic alignment of his research team’s work with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 2: Zero Hunger. This goal is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.
Emmambux began by highlighting the driving forces behind his research and innovation. He emphasised the urgent need to address the triple burden of malnutrition. This intricate challenge encompasses undernutrition, dietary non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and hidden hunger (or micronutrient deficiency). He said, “in Sub-Saharan African, protein energy malnutrition (or undernutrition), results in stunting of 22% of children. This figure is almost close to 30% in South Africa”.
By strategically targeting these facets, his team’s innovative efforts aim to alleviate the multifaceted challenges impeding global food and nutrition security. Malnutrition is caused mostly by low-nutrient and energy-dense food versus nutrient-dense food.
“To tackle the triple burden of malnutrition, we need to look at producing nutrient‑dense food,” he said.
Central to the CoE-FS PI’s presentation was the concept of SMART (Safe, Marketable, Affordable, Ready-to-eat, Tasty) foods and ingredients: foods that are fortified and tailored to address specific nutritional deficiencies. The innovations being developed also consider environmental sustainability in terms of waste (reducing food, plastic and chemical waste) and energy consumption.
There are several pillars to the SMART foods concept. These include lowering the energy density of foods, producing nutrient-dense foods and food ingredients with health benefits from (i) extrusion cooking, (ii) solar drying, (iii) infrared/microwave processing, and (iv) fermentation, communication and training, and assisting small‑scale food processing entrepreneurs with innovations to design/modify extrusion, and with solar drying, microwave drying/roasting, and fermentation.
Emmambux highlighted a particular challenge that plagues many regions: the high viscosity of porridge-like staples, which can inhibit infants, the elderly, and those with compromised health from consuming adequate nutrients. He said: “Most indigenous and locally available porridges are far too viscous (or thick) to attain the proper nutrient density”.
He and his team have ingeniously tackled this issue by devising simple and effective technologies to reduce the viscosity of such foods, making them more accessible to vulnerable populations.
“Simple technologies, for example microwave and infrared treatment, can reduce viscosity and this increases the nutrient density of indigenous and local grain,” he said.
Power of simple technologies
Emmambux’s innovations were a testament to the profound impact that simple technologies can have on complex problems. By employing straightforward techniques, he managed to enhance the nutritional value and accessibility of staple foods. This not only aligns with the goal of reducing malnutrition but also makes it easier for diverse groups of individuals to benefit from these essential nutrients.
In addition to technological innovation, Emmambux underscored the importance of training and effective communication. He highlighted that innovations alone are insufficient; they must be accompanied by comprehensive training programmes that empower communities to implement these techniques effectively. Furthermore, clear and accessible communication is vital to ensuring that these innovations reach the intended beneficiaries.
His team at the University of Limpopo was responsible for training 14 small, medium and micro enterprises in the province, on microbial food contamination regarding Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. In addition, communication has been adapted to be available in different languages and reach people with low literacy levels.
Implications for sustainable development
Emmambux’s work aligns seamlessly with the broader agenda of sustainable development. His innovations, which address nutritional challenges and promote better health outcomes, resonate deeply with the principles of sustainability. By creating foods that are both nutritionally enriched and easier to consume, his work contributes to the well-being of present and future generations.
His presentation during the Research Symposium showcased the immense potential of innovation to reshape the landscape of food security. His focus on SMART foods and the reduction of porridge viscosity demonstrated a remarkable blend of simplicity and efficacy, a testament to the power of practical solutions. Professor Emmambux was joined in the session by other speakers: Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa (who spoke on “Research and capacity building for sustainable African food systems”), Dr Selma Karuaihe (“The role of agricultural economics in shaping the food systems agenda: national to global”), as well as CoE-FS co-director, Professor Lise Korsten (“Food security at a tipping point: are we heading for zero food?”). The session was chaired by Dr Marinda Visser.
As attendees absorbed the insights shared by Emmabux and other speakers at the session, a resounding message emerged: innovation is the cornerstone of progress in addressing global food security challenges. This work provides hope and inspiration for a future where sustenance and nutrition are accessible to all, paving the way for a more secure and nourished world.
Watch the second day of the Research Symposium here:
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