These new sorghum varieties might help sub-Saharan Africa meet nutritional needs

Aug 16, 2023, 10:36 AM

New sorghum varieties developed by scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can help meet the nutritional needs of mothers and children in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new study.

The scientists developed advanced lines of sorghum by integrating multiple traits into a single plant. The results of the research are critical as sorghum is a significant crop cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa, with 300 million people depending on it.

It is produced in semi-arid zones in drought-prone and marginal locations where other crops fail to thrive and concerns about malnutrition are prominent.

Though sorghum provides many dietary benefits, as it is high in protein, fibre, vitamin B and some micronutrients, it lacks sufficient vitamin A precursors and key minerals such as iron and zinc, like many other cereal grains. 

Vitamins and minerals are essential for immune system functions and disease prevention. Children with Vitamin A deficiency face an increased risk of blindness and death from infections. To overcome these shortages, the scientists used a biotechnological technique commonly used in plant breeding to make the variety more suitable for regions with food insecurity.

The new varieties are enhanced with both provitamin A and non-provitamin A carotenoids. These varieties also contain a more efficient phytase enzyme, a protein that breaks down phytic acid. This improves the absorption of nutrients from the diet.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of carotenoids and minerals absorption from food using these new varieties, scientists utilised a laboratory digestion model that imitates the human digestive system. Through a series of trials, the research team found more positive results. The findings are published in the journal Food & Function.

The results show that sorghum made from the strain of this new variety can produce 32 times more provitamin A carotenoids than regular sorghum varieties. New healthier sorghum varieties with significant concentrations of provitamin A carotenoids increase mineral absorption.

Food insecurity is unusually high in sub-Saharan Africa, where diets are dominated by carbohydrate-rich cereal grains. As a result of food scarcity and regional dietary patterns, vitamin A, iron and zinc deficiencies remain prominent.

Vitamin A and mineral deficiencies are among the leading causes of death for children under five years in sub-Saharan Africa.

These sorghum lines also contained high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids which are important for eye health and brain development. Future human trials will be needed to confirm that higher mineral bioavailability will not substantially affect the amount of provitamin A carotenoids that can be absorbed.

The new varieties are the product of 20 years of collaborations from scientists with the USDA, the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center, North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute and Corteva Agriscience.

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