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Scientists develop peanut butter to fight childhood blindness

Monday, May 5, 2003

ALBANY, Ga. -- Like many Filipinos, Anna Resurreccion grew up eating peanut butter, an inexpensive food in a poor country where more than a third of children have vitamin A deficiency, a major cause of childhood blindness.

Decades later, she and other University of Georgia food scientists have found a way to fortify peanut butter with vitamin A without hurting the taste. She believes the fortified peanut butter could help curb more than 500,000 cases of childhood blindness around the world each year.

Resurreccion spent her childhood on a campus of the University of the Philippines, where her mother was a professor. She remembers eating peanut butter as a snack, either by itself, or on a popular roll known as "pan de sal."

"There are many children who are at risk. Fortunately, I was not one of those," she said. But thousands of other Filipino children struggle with vitamin A deficiency, and the scientists are working with a company named Lily's to get the fortified peanut butter into schools.

Lily's, a 50-year-old company that makes a third of the peanut butter sold in the Philippines, was guaranteed exclusive use of the new technology for a year. Its fortified peanut butter has been a success, Resurreccion said.

Besides snacking on peanut butter, Filipinos use the spread to prepare kare-kare, a peanut-flavored meat stew, and satay, a peanut-flavored meat on a skewer.

Childhood blindness is not a serious problem in the United States, where most children get enough vitamin A in food or from vitamin pills. But it's a major health problem in many poor Asian, African and Latin American countries.

Thirty-five percent of all school-age children show signs of vitamin A deficiency in the Philippines, Resurreccion said.

"We're talking about people from the low-income population," she said. "They can hardly buy food, so... vitamin pills would be a frivolous expense. Also, it is better to get vitamins and minerals from food."

Support for vitamin-enriched products isn't universal.

Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Oakland, Calif.-based Food First-Institute for Food and Development Policy, believes the products prevent policy makers from finding long-term solutions.

Pointing to the availability of vitamin-A rice in her native India, Mittal said people who are too poor to afford a nutritious meal also are too poor to purchase vitamin-enhanced rice.

"It benefits corporations who control the technology," said Mittal, whose group believes poor distribution, not a lack of food, causes world hunger.

But Resurreccion said there is solid evidence the fortified peanut butter is reaching children in the Philippines, where grocers often divide jars of peanut butter into smaller portions for families that can't afford more.

"We have study after study that tells us it is reaching people, and the consumption in affluent groups is just as much as the disadvantaged groups," she said.

Filipino farmers grow a few peanuts, but not enough to satisfy demand, so manufacturers have to rely on imports, she said.

Peanuts are a $500 million crop in Georgia, which supplies about 40 percent of the nation's peanuts. About 65 percent of peanuts grown in the state are used to manufacture peanut butter.

Resurreccion said her team, along with researchers at the University of the Philippines and that country's Food Development Center, decided to focus on peanut butter because of its popularity.

It took about three years to create a formulation with the look and taste that kids expect from the popular spread.

Resurreccion hopes the technology will spread. In May, when the agreement with Lily's expires, she plans to share the process with other Filipino companies and with other countries.

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On the Net:

Georgia Peanut Commission: http://www.gapeanuts.com

Food First-Institute for Food and Development Policy: http://www.foodfirst.org/index.html


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