CoE Articles

SMART foods could pave way for a healthier nation

Published May 10, 2021, by Lynne Smit

Professor Naushad Emmambux is exploring SMART foods as a way to get South Africans off cheap, energy-dense foods and consuming healthier foods.

“You are what you eat,” according to the old saying, and what we are eating is making us more susceptible to communicable and non-communicable diseases.

At a time where energy-dense foods are cheaper, and fast food characterised by high levels of carbohydrates, sugar and fat are the preferred choice of many low-income earners, is it possible to improve community health by changing the food we eat rather than our eating habits?

Professor Naushad Emmambux, based in the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP) and a researcher within the Technological Innovation programme of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security (COE-FS), believes it is, and his research is leading the way.

Prof Naushad Emmambux believes that SMART foods could help lead to a healthier South Africa.

Emmambux and others in the COE-FS are researching ways to manufacture healthy, nutrient-dense food that is SMART (safe, marketable, affordable (and African), ready-to-eat and tasty).

“The traditional African diet is good and healthy, and often climate smart, using less water and energy to grow and prepare. Our research is developing innovations that provide all of the benefits and none of the adverse effects of the ‘fast food diet’ that has become so ubiquitous.”

One such innovation involves making the starch in maize is more resistant to digestion, thus lowering the glycaemic index. Also being developed are nutrient-rich snacks made from sweet potato and moringa leaves as well as cowpea pasta and low-fat mayonnaise made from a grain which comes from Ethiopia.

“We place a high emphasis on the ‘T’ in SMART – these foods need to be tasty or they will not find a way onto consumers’ plates,” he says.

Another innovation involves developing an affordable sweet potato porridge for babies, for whom maize meal is not ideal.

“We know that in poor communities, babies often start eating porridge at a young age because their mothers have to return to work. And, it makes sense for the maize meal that the family is eating to be shared with the baby. The problem is that this porridge does not provide the macro and micronutrients that these children need, with the result that we see stunting in children,” he explains.

Emmambux’s research is developing marketable baby foods that have a much higher nutritional composition, and which have a similar taste and texture to maize.

The innovative products need to be adopted and marketed by SMEs, Emmambux says. “We have proven products, now we need to ensure it is financially feasible for them to be produced at a small or medium scale which can then be affordable for the people who need them the most.”

“We place a high emphasis on the ‘T’ in SMART"

Prof Naushad Emmambux

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