Red palm oil as a means of combating vitamin A deficiency


Vitamin A deficiency leads to eye malfunction and increases infant mortality. The problem is especially prevalent in Africa. Diet diversification by using locally available products is one of the possible means for alleviating these deficiencies. Focusing on this option, a project is under way to promote unrefined red palm oil in Burkina Faso. It has included a study, by scientists from the IRD, the University of Montreal and the IRSS of Ouagadougou on the impact of the introduction of this oil, produced in the South-West of the country, into the diet of women and children of another region where it is not normally used. They provided the first demonstration of the effectiveness of free voluntary consumption of this vegetable oil, rich in the precursor of vitamin A, beta-carotene, in reducing deficiencies of this vitamin in women and children. This long-term food-supplement strategy, effective in public health management, could also contribute to local economic development by stimulating production and creating jobs, especially for women.

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.

Furthermore, in two years, nearly half the women in the trial project changed their behaviour by intentionally including this oil, which was a new foodstuff, in their diet. This emphasizes the feasibility and possible long-term application of using it as a supplement, based on the marketing of the product, prior issue of information and the setting of prices appropriate for the local market. Consequently, palm oil can, as has other health-promoting food produce (particularly vitamin-A-rich fruit and vegetables), and combined with other strategies, be incorporated in national vitamin A programmes in Burkina Faso, where the project is now being extended, and in other zones of the Sahel. Further studies are under way on the use of red palm oil in meals served in school canteens, and on other benefits of bringing palm oil on to the market beyond the production zones covered by the project. Among these positive results is job generation, especially for women.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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