More than 250 million under-fives in the world are at risk from vitamin A deficiency. Such deficiency, currently the primary cause of avoidable blindness, provides the conditions for diseases to take hold, leading to high death rates among these young children. Several strategic options exist for combating these deficiencies: medicinal supplements, vitamin A enrichment of foods at industrial or community scale, or diet diversification founded on the use of locally available resources. The latter approach was adopted, in a pilot project for promoting unrefined red palm oil in Burkina Faso. IRD scientists from the research unit “nutrition, diet, societies”, working jointly with Canadian and Burkina researchers (1), ran a trial from 1999 to 2001. They tested the effectiveness of red palm oil on the vitamin A status of mothers and of under-fives in the East-Central part of the country, an area where it is not normally used. This oil, known for its richness in the vitamin-A precursor beta-carotene and its high efficiency, is, however, commonly produced and used in another area of Burkina Faso, in the South-West of the country (2). It was transported then sold as a food supplement at the trial sites selected for the project, in order to assess its impact against deficiencies in real conditions of use, in other words conditions of free voluntary acquisition by women. These women were informed beforehand of the issues involved and of the benefits of red palm oil by employing various awareness communication methods (talks, discussions, theatre, and so on).
The impact of this consumption on the vitamin A status of the women and children involved was assessed by measuring blood-serum retinol levels at the beginning and at the end of the investigation.
After two years, the results showed a clear increase in vitamin A intake by mothers and children who had consumed red palm oil directly or indirectly (through breastfeeding). Increases of intake to nutritional safety levels of between 41 and 120% were recorded in mothers and of 36 to 97% in children. In parallel, the proportion of mothers and children who had presented a strongly deficient serum retinol rate, lower than the recommended threshold (0.70 µmol/l), at the beginning of the study had fallen, going from 62 to 30% for women, from 84.5 to 67% for children. As the oil was made available only for the pilot project, these results can be attributed to it. In real trade conditions red palm oil proved an effective dietary supplement for combating vitamin A deficiency.
Marie Guillaume | alfa
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