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From Staple to Lifesaver

By Andrew Myers

From breakfast porridge to nshima at dinner, the typical Zambian family meal often includes maize.

Now, Bloomberg School researchers are investigating how to turn this staple into a lifesaver. They are exploring the efficacy of a new type of maize bred to provide as much as 15 times the vitamin A found in standard varieties grown in Zambia today.

Earlier studies pioneered by Dean Emeritus Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS '73, and colleagues at the School have established that this one nutrient, vitamin A, could reduce childhood mortality in at-risk populations by 23 to 34 percent and prevent afflictions like xerophthalmia, which can lead to blindness.

The new variety is known as orange maize for the distinct hue of its kernels-a departure from the white or yellow familiar to most. This new maize is not genetically modified, however, but rather biofortified-a hybrid carefully crossbred to maximize each kernel's pro-vitamin A carotenoids, which can be converted to vitamin A in the body. (Genetically modified foods are banned in many countries.)

The study included approximately 1,000 Zambian children ages 5 to 8 years split into two groups. One group received regular meals of biofortified maize. The second received conventional white maize. The study was conducted in the central agricultural district of Mkushi, where maize is the primary energy source for children. The researchers measured blood levels of vitamin A to assess the efficacy of the maize. With the data-gathering phases complete, the team hopes to publish results soon.

"Maize is the dominant staple in Zambia, especially among the rural poor. It's a perfect delivery mechanism for vitamin A," says Amanda Palmer, PhD '11, MHS '06, an assistant scientist at the Bloomberg School who is overseeing field operations of the study. The study's principal investigator is Keith P. West Jr., DrPH '87, MPH '79, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the School.

In Zambia, existing vitamin A supplementation efforts include capsules given twice a year and fortified sugar. The capsule form, however, does little to address the underlying dietary inadequacy. Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of sugar in rural homes is properly fortified. Orange maize would complement both of these strategies.

"Orange maize could really transform lives," Palmer says.