The Foods that Fix Malnutrition

Pearl millet. Finger millet. Green gram. Prickly pear cactus. Teff. Bambara groundnut. Sorghum. Pigeon pea. The names of these foods could be familiar to regular readers of this newsletter, but to most in the West, they’re unknowns. However, these foods and many others like them are deeply ingrained in cultures where farmers have been cultivating them for thousands of years. Scientists are now working to become more familiar with these overlooked crops as they may prove potent weapons against a formidable enemy: malnutrition.

In a recent report, we took a closer look at what malnutrition is and how it affects people. A lack of food leads to starvation, but a lack of proper nutrition can be just as deadly. Malnutrition renders children stunted and wasted, affecting their natural growth and development. Severe vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness. Too little iron causes anemia. It’s not enough for children and adults to simply eat adequate amounts of food. They need the right balance of foods, as well.

Below, we review some of the foods that have already attracted our attention at Grow Further, superfoods so packed with vitamins and nutrients that they’ve piqued the interest of researchers seeking to curtail malnutrition and food insecurity. They’ve also attracted the attention of the US State Department, which named Grow Further as one of the first 8 champions in its new Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils initiative.

No mere blades of grass

Some of the first crops ever domesticated by humans were cereal grasses cultivated in eastern Africa, in particular the Horn of Africa and the region where modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia are found. In that part of the world, teff farming dates back to antiquity.

Today, teff is still widely grown and consumed in Ethiopia, and its cultivation is now spreading. Though hardly common on American dinner plates, teff consumption is rising in the US in part because it’s gluten-free. Many American farmers are looking to expand teff cultivation. For instance, officials in California see a potentially lucrative export market, and scientists there are exploring ways to make this seeded grass more drought-resistant, mindful of the challenge climate change poses to agriculture everywhere.

Teff may turn out to be a safe bet for improving climate resilience and beating back malnutrition. Recent investigations are finding that teff is a powerful antioxidant that’s rich in ascorbic acid. This crop is also rich in protein and fiber and can be a good source of iron and zinc.

Millets are another class of healthy cereals known to smallholder farmers in South Asia and Africa. Pearl millet, finger millet, and other varieties are ancient; like teff, they’ve been cultivated for millennia. India and the United Nations declared last year to be the year of the millet in a campaign meant to draw awareness and encourage more millet farming.

Pearl millet and finger millet have much in common with teff. Millet varieties are gluten-free and can be grown in arid climates. The wholesome grains millet plants produce are also packed with protein, fiber, and vitamins.

In a recent e-newsletter featuring Indian agricultural research, agricultural extension researcher Somdutt Tripathi says millet packs more protein than wheat. And like teff (and sorghum), millets contain antioxidant properties. For those reasons and more, the millet should be wielded in the battle against child and adult malnutrition. “The current nutrient deficits of protein, calcium, and iron in poor nations will be addressed through the inclusion of millet-based foods in international, national, and state-level feeding programs.”

Nuts, peas, fruits, and beans

Cactus plants are clearly drought-resistant; they’ve evolved to survive desert conditions and grow wild and in abundance in these harsh, dry ecosystems without any human intervention. Farmers are experimenting with cactus fruit cultivation in an attempt to build a better cactus, growing cactus fruit as a fallback food for herd animals and humans alike when droughts strike. There are good reasons to encourage more people to consume prickly pear cactus fruits—these easy-to-grow, easy-to-harvest fruits boast antioxidants, vitamins, protein, fiber, and amino acids. They’re also rich in sugar content and carbohydrates.

Pigeon peas are another forgotten or “orphan crop” examined in an earlier issue of this newsletter. They’re grown in parts of Africa, Asia, and Central America, though not on anything close to a scale that would make this food a household name. As a legume, pigeon pea plants take nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it into the soil, enriching soils for other plants that need this critical nutrient. But pigeon peas nourish people, as well. “It is an inexpensive and reliable source of proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins,” as four researchers recently pointed out in their overview of Ugandan research published in the journal Agriculture.

Readers of this Grow Further newsletter will have heard of the Bambara groundnut, as well.

A team in northern Ghana is now the beneficiary of a Grow Further grant that aims to help popularize this chickpea-like food. The chance to innovate smallholder farming through an improved and popular Bambara groundnut variety attracted our attention due to this food’s potential to put a serious dent in malnutrition. Bambara groundnuts are packed with more protein and amino acids than peanuts, as one study shows, and they are rich in zinc, calcium, and iron, “thus, they are especially valuable in areas where iron deficiency occurs.”

Tip of the iceberg

The list of vitamin and mineral-rich crops that could be key to improving food security and nutritional outcomes is long.

There’s green gram, more commonly known as mung bean, a climate-hearty legume rich in protein. The orange-fleshed sweet potato is a candidate for tackling vitamin A and vitamin C deficiency. Groundnuts, the most common type of which is also known as peanuts, could also help alleviate malnutrition if they were grown in greater quantities in dry climates.

These and the other crops mentioned above are just a small sampling of the hundreds of overlooked foods that, with a little innovation, could be recruited to help defeat malnutrition globally. Grow Further will be keeping an eye on all of them.

 — Grow Further

Photo credit: A trial of hybrid sorghum in West Africa. A Diama/ICRISAT (Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0).

Subscribe to Our Newsletter