Healthy foods are often expensive and time consuming to prepare. While the diets of lower-income earners are often energy dense, they tend to be low in other nutritional components such as protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and health-promoting phytochemicals. Sub-Saharan Africa faces a triple burden of malnutrition – food insecurity, undernutrition and overweight and obesity – which burdens the social and economic systems of the affected countries.

Internationally acclaimed University of Pretoria (UP) food scientist, Prof. Naushad Emmambux is on a quest to combat this burden and is developing foods that are nutritious and affordable, while also being cost-effective to produce by small and medium enterprises. Emmambux uses innovative technologies in food chemistry to produce food that is SMART – safe, marketable, affordable, ready-to-eat and trendsetting. He also looks at how SMART food production can combat diet-related non-communicable diseases, which include diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The modern lifestyles of most consumers have involved a departure from traditional indigenous foods to foods that are quick and convenient. These foods are often nutritionally poor. Emmambux focuses his attention on African indigenous foods for three reasons: they are highly nutritious, affordable and climate resilient, making them easy to grow in most weather conditions. Incorporating indigenous foods into the SMART approach to food science, Emmambux is developing foods that are healthier and tastier. Cowpea, sorghum and the Bambara groundnut are just some of the traditional foods he is researching.

To combat the triple burden of malnutrition, Emmambux’s objectives are to create foods that are lower in energy, higher in protein and can tackle diet-related non-communicable diseases. One focus area of Emmambux’s work is to tackle malnutrition in babies and children which, he explains, typically results from undernutrition, commonly caused by deficiencies in macro nutrients (including protein and energy) and micro nutrients (including vitamin A and iron). A lack of macro nutrients causes stunting in children.

These deficiencies are often a result of food choices. In poor communities, food choices are often determined by a mother’s income and work schedule and are therefore influenced by speed and convenience. Breast-feeding mothers are often forced to introduce porridge to their young babies’ diets and stop breast-feeding because they need to get back to work. As a result, babies as young as three months are not getting adequate quantities of the nutrients found in breast milk. The porridge is typically very thick and diluted with water. This dilution lessens the amount of micro and macro nutrients the baby consumes.

Emmambux aims to develop marketable baby foods that have a higher nutritional composition. One objective is to reduce the thickness of baby porridge (which is typically maize pap) without diluting the nutritional value. By using microwave and infrared technologies, Emmambux has managed to significantly increase the amount of energy and protein in these foods. He has also looked at protein-rich indigenous grains as an alternative to maize. Findings suggest he will be able to replicate a similar-tasting porridge from these grains.

Furthermore, while poor families often cannot afford to feed their children meat, cheaper protein-rich foods such as legumes (in their raw form) take a lot of time to cook and are therefore not a viable option for those rushing to work. A meal of bread, butter and tea is a far easier food-choice option for many South Africans. While this meal choice is energy dense, it lacks nutritional value. Emmambux’s research on SMART foods has found a nutritious alternative. Samp and beans are cheap and nutritious indigenous foods that are high in protein when eaten in combination. Through innovative technology, Emmambux has reduced the cooking time of samp to only 30 minutes.

At the other end of the malnutrition spectrum is the issue of overweight and obesity. High-energy foods typically have a high fat content. While high fat content is not ideal, fat has an important sensory function and usually improves the texture and taste of food. Emmambux explains that it is therefore important to maintain this sensory experience when looking for alternative dietary options to combat obesity, and Emmambux has done just that. Through food chemistry and nanotechnology, he has developed fat replacers that successfully reduce fat while maintaining its sensory properties. Emmambux has used a modified starch that mimics fat, and used it to develop products such as mayonnaise that only has 20% fat (normal mayonnaise can contain up to 75% fat) and a fat-reduced cheese.

Emmambux’s approach uses green chemistry to replace the fat. This is a new and innovative approach that will certainly receive international attention. What makes it so favourable is that it does not use the harsh chemicals that are usually used when creating other fat replacers. Emmambux’s approach is therefore healthier to humans and the environment, and is more sustainable.

Lowering the amount of energy in food is key to combating obesity, and another way to achieve this is by reducing the amount of rapidly digestible starches. When starches digest too quickly in the body they can spike blood glucose levels. Emmambux is developing low-GI foods, which are slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised. Foods that are slowly digested are also considered to be a form of dietary fibre, which has added health benefits.

While there are numerous benefits of using indigenous African foods, Emmambux notes that because starchy foodstuffs like maize form such a large component of many African diets, it is important to also find ways to improve the nutritional composition of these products. ”We hope to produce a range of so-called SMART foods with extra health benefits that are safe, marketable, affordable, ready-to-eat and trendsetting,” he says. To date, Emmambux and his research team have developed a range of SMART foods which include sorghum porridge with a high antioxidant content, gluten-free pasta from a maize-cowpea combination, double-cream yoghurt with half the fat, and nutrient-rich baby foods.

Widely recognised for his research, Emmambux was recently invited to return to his country of birth, Mauritius, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence. He was invited to present his novel research on SMART foods at the International Conference of the Mauritian Academic Diaspora (ICMAD). The ICMAD aims to showcase the international success of Mauritians and brings together members of the Mauritian diaspora from scholarly and academic fields to engage with their counterparts at the University of Mauritius and other local universities.

In recent years, Emmambux and his UP food science colleagues have had about 30 papers on SMART food published in internationally acclaimed, high-impact journals. – University of Pretoria