Bio-fortification: Has India found a new solution to help tackle its double burden of malnutrition?

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Insufficient marketing, high labour costs, and competing foods have diminished sorghum's popularity as a staple food, but it could make a comeback. ©Getty Images
Insufficient marketing, high labour costs, and competing foods have diminished sorghum's popularity as a staple food, but it could make a comeback. ©Getty Images

Related tags Fortification India Malnutrition

A bio-fortified variety of an unpopular staple food has attracted attention for its potential to tackle India’s double burden of malnutrition.

Parbhani Shakti is being touted as India's first bio-fortified variety of sorghum, a plant from which grain and other crops are grown.

While it remains a traditional crop grown throughout India, insufficient marketing, high labour costs, and competing foods such as soybean have diminished sorghum's popularity as a staple food.

Sorghum 2.0

However, now that climate change poses a rising threat to many crops, sorghum could well be making a comeback, thanks to its drought-resistant nature.

To further counter the effects of higher CO2 ​levels in the atmosphere — which are known to compromise the nutrient content of crops — breeders at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) developed Parbhani Shakti, using gene modification to increase the bioavailability of sorghum's zinc and iron content.

After multi-centre trials in Maharashtra, as well as extensive tests in farmers' fields, Parbhani Shakti was released in May this year.

This has important implications for India, where approximately 500 million people (66% of the population) suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia​, principal scientist at ICRISAT A. Ashok Kumar explained that bio-fortification involves raising the concentration of vitamins and minerals in grains and edible plant parts using conventional breeding methods.

"We wanted to increase the bioavailability of the existing nutrients in sorghum — instead of adding ingredients to it — so people could still eat it daily and improve their health at no extra cost. That was the idea with which we started."

He added that ICRISAT chose to focus on iron and zinc because those were the nutrients in which people in India (especially pregnant women) were the most deficient.

"We assessed the iron and zinc content of all the cultivars used by farmers in the country and found that they were not up to the mark.

"Now, we've fixed that on a base level, but someday, we want to move towards even doubling the iron and zinc concentration already present in sorghum."

Parbhani Shakti is said to contain 50% more iron and 60% more zinc than the unfortified varieties, and Kumar said this was achieved without compromising the yield, which he claimed was in fact higher than the varieties farmers in Maharashtra had been producing before.

"In addition to iron and zinc, as well as B vitamins and dietary fibre, the fortified product has excellent protein content — almost 12%, higher than the 10% in the unfortified varieties.

"Also, phytate is the component that interferes with the bioavailability (of sorghum's nutrients). Parbhani Shakti's lower phytate content (4.3mg per 100g, compared to average 7.4mg per 100g in unfortified sorghum), translates to increased bioavailability of micronutrients."

Multiple benefits

The health benefits of sorghum bio-fortification are especially applicable to obese and diabetic individuals, as well as Coeliac disease patients.

Kumar said, "Bio-fortified sorghum is good for diabetics, as it is low-GI and its speed of digestibility is slow. It is also gluten-free, making it suitable for Coeliac disease sufferers.

"People who are obese will also benefit: they will easily feel full when eating sorghum, so they will not consume too much.

"It's a beautiful crop. When you consume bio-fortified sorghum, you are addressing the double burden of malnutrition (obesity and micronutrient deficiencies)."

Commercial interest

Kumar said this was just the first batch of bio-fortified sorghum, with more to come in the next two to three years.

Already, however, it has been attracting commercial interest.

Kumar said: "Some food companies — mostly start-ups and SMEs making various products with sorghum, such as snack foods — had already been using this on a small scale.

Now that production is on a larger scale, the interest from manufacturers has increased."

While no major product has hit the market yet, several companies have approached ICRISAT with an interest in larger supplies of bio-fortified sorghum.

In fact, Kumar revealed, natural extract producer Indfrag — whose parent company is OmniActive Health Technologies — had recently ordered 200kg of Parbhani Shakti, though he declined to go into further detail.

He added: "In light of climate change, whereby some areas (in India) are becoming drier and hotter, we need crops that can thrive in such conditions, and sorghum is one of them.

"If you don't improve the nutritional content of these crops, increased levels of CO2 ​in the atmosphere will deteriorate the quality of the grain."

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