Orange coloured sweetcorn could improve the lives of millions of malnourished children by boosting the vitamin A in their diet, according to a new study.
Scientists have bred a type of corn rich in beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, that could be used to improve the diet of millions of poor people.
Every year, about 500,000 children go blind because they don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet.
The lack of vitamin A also ups their risk of disease and death, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many people in this area are too poor to afford expensive vitamin A rich foods such as orange fruits, eggs, dark leafy vegetables, or meat.
But they do eat large amounts of white corn porridge every day.
“Traditionally, white maize porridge is a popular food among children and adults,” said Dr Wendy White, at Iowa State University, who headed the study. “It’s even, usually, the first solid food given to infants. We prepared the orange maize porridge in our study using traditional African methods in order to best approximate a real world situation.”
In the study, six healthy women were given three different types of maize porridge, one of which was made out of orange maize. The research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the beta carotene from the orange maize was converted into vitamin A nearly twice as fast as beta carotene from the other maize.
"This study answered a major feasibility concern," Dr White told Inter Press Service news agency. "Plant breeders were quickly successful in ramping up the beta carotene content in the corn, but then the question was, 'Would it be available to be absorbed and utilized by people?'"
"So what we've shown is the beta carotene is bioavailable to be converted to vitamin A in the body, and much more so than previously expected," she explained.
In 2012, the World Bank backed group behind the research, Harvestplus plans as a trial, to introduce the orange corn into Zambia, where vitamin A deficiency affects more than 53 per cent of children. They think that the new corn could give children aged between two and six years old, 30 per cent of their daily vitamin A requirement and 40 per cent of the vitamin A needs for women of child-bearing age.
Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections, according to the World Health Organisation. In pregnant women vitamin A deficiency causes night blindness and may raise the risk of death while giving birth.