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Harnessing an old age technique to beat hidden hunger

Photo: P. Lowe / CIMMYT (Flickr).

Our new Expert Group will equip small and medium-sized food companies in Kenya with knowledge and skills to use hydrothermal technology to process whole grains, an approach that increases their nutritional value. This technique unlocks the bioavailability of micronutrients inside the grains and enables their easy absorption. This Expert Group is a collaboration between Inclusive Business Sweden, Hidden in Grains, BioInnovate Africa and the Global Alliance on Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Hidden hunger, a chronic lack of minerals and vitamins like zinc, iodine and iron, affects two billion people across the globe and is a big problem in Eastern Africa. This form of undernutrition occurs when the food people eat has poor quality, lacking micronutrients essential for growth, development and good health. This different kind of hunger can be devastating for the health and for economies, striking human mental development, productivity and the immune system. Even mild deficiencies can have serious cognitive and physical consequences.

According to the Hidden Hunger Index 2013, 51.7% of Kenya’s population suffers from hidden hunger, 41.3% in Ethiopia, 35% in Tanzania and 34.3% in Uganda.

Balanced nutritious diets are key to reducing hidden hunger. Unfortunately, diets in Eastern African, just like in much of the rest of the world, lack variety and mainly consist of maize, wheat and rice, occasionally including other grains, like millet and sorghum. With bustling cities and busy lifestyles, people tend to opt for convenient, fast and cheap foods, and up to 60% of this food is processed.

Processed foods fill our stomachs but do not nourish our bodies, and the effects of their continuous consumption are especially hard on low-income consumers, who can’t afford a more diverse food basket on a day-to-day basis.

Interestingly, many of the low-nutrient processed foods are paradoxically made from locally available traditional grains, most of which are very nutritious. However, most of the nutrients are lost during processing. For example, polishing rice and refining wheat can remove 60–90% of their micronutrients, turning these nutrient-rich foods into sources of empty calories.

Whole grains, especially ancient grains, have long served as an important source of carbohydrates and proteins, but they also contain vitamins and minerals. However, whole grains also contain phytate, an anti-nutrient that can bind calcium, zinc, iron and other minerals, inhibiting their absorption by reducing their bioavailability.

Hydrothermal technology is a proven, water, and heat-based method that can triple bioavailability of minerals in grains by reducing phytate.

Hidden in Grains, a Swedish social enterprise founded by two women with a background in food science, works with hydrothermal processing of grains. The process includes soaking of the raw materials, which is followed by gentle drying under low temperatures. This method has proven to provide the best possible access to natural minerals in grains. It is not a modern or new way of treating grains, but one developed from reliable techniques that date back several thousands of years. Hydrothermal treatment helps grains release vital nutrients and makes them easier to absorb by human bodies too.

Given that food processing companies provide more than half of all the nutrition that most low-income urban families consume, there is a clear need to improve the nutritional quality of widely consumed processed foods. Focusing on companies that target low-income customers could be particularly effective.

This expert group will share practical knowledge about hydrothermal processing with small and medium scale processors and food companies in Kenya and local policy makers, tackling hidden hunger through the use of whole locally grown traditional grains.