Humans require 22 mineral elements for their wellbeing including calcium (Ca), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), selenium (Se) and zinc (Zn). The biological functions of elements include bone structure (Ca and Mg) and, as constituents of proteins, immune response (Se and Zn) and oxygen transport (Fe and Zn). Adequate quantities of these elements in diets is thus necessary for food security; inadequate intakes, or poor absorption in the gut due to e.g. diarrhoea, can lead to ‘hidden hunger’. It’s termed ‘hidden’ because the physical effects are not obvious, unlike the symptoms of protein or energy undernourishment, and because it is often hard to quantify the prevalence of such malnourishment in populations.
Malawi hasn’t witnessed widespread famine since 2005, although certain regions are prone to food shortages due to both drought and flooding. But it may be that hidden hunger is widespread and that deficiencies of certain minerals and vitamins are a major health burden. There is evidence to suggest this is the case, for example with Se deficiency (Gibson 2011; Eick 2009; Hurst 2013) and Zn deficiency (Gibson 1998; Siyame 2013); but there is no data at the national level.
Malawi is predominantly a subsistence economy in which households grow their own food. The dietary supply of elements is thus dependent on which crops households choose to grow and what those crops contain. Element concentrations in crops depend on the availability of elements in the soil: for example, in low-pH soils Se is predominantly found in forms unavailable for plant uptake, whereas in soils with pH >6.5 Se is generally soluble, mobile and readily available for plant uptake. There are limited data on crop composition in Malawi so we worked to fill this gap, collecting over 600 crop samples representing 97 food items for multi-element analysis by ICP-MS (Joy et al. submitted). We found that soil type affects crop composition, with maize and leafy vegetables from calcareous soils having greater Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg and Se concentrations than those grown on non-calcareous soils. Maize also had greater Zn in samples from calcareous soils, whereas leafy vegetables had greater Zn from non-calcareous soils.
To find out what crops households are growing and what foods they are eating, the Malawi Household Survey (World Bank and Malawi Government) has proved a valuable resource. In this survey, >12,500 households were asked what foods they consumed over the last seven days. We are working to match this data to our composition data to generate dietary mineral supply estimates by region and soil type. One of our early findings is the critical importance of small fish in meeting Ca, Se and Zn requirements. Most fish production is from Lake Malawi, a Rift Valley lake that runs much of the length of the country. It’s sometimes known as the Calendar Lake as it’s roughly 365 mile long and 52 miles wide. Fish are sundried before traders take them inland. Although fish is a vital source of minerals in the diet, households require some cash to purchase them. It will be very interesting to see the relationship between household income and consumption of fish.
Dried fish at a market in the capital city, Lilongwe
The FAO and World Bank have just published a book called ‘Analyzing Food Security Using Household Survey Data’ (http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-fs/fs-methods/householdsurvey/en/#.U7V6cPldVPo) and at the recent Micronutrient Forum held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I found that other research groups including IFPRI are doing similar work to us. It’s great to see the hard work now contributing to scientific knowledge as we write up, publish and present our findings.
Edward presenting the team’s work at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi
The last couple of years have been a steep learning curve: a faulty radiator can write off your engine; laptop battery life is everything; and you may need to hire guards to keep monkeys off your maize trials! These have been valuable lessons as I plan to continue similar research in Ethiopia starting in September. Overall it has been a pleasure living in Malawi, a country endowed with some very beautiful landscapes and incredibly friendly folk – it’s not uncommon on sampling trips to be invited into farmers’ houses for roast pumpkin and peanuts. And the Malawi Ministries of Agriculture and Health have been very supportive of the work. Hopefully the outputs will be useful to them, for example in developing fertiliser policies and targeting nutrition strategies.
by Edward Joy, PhD researcher University of Nottingham-BGS
Eick F, Maleta K, Govasmark E, Duttaroy AK, Bjune AG (2009) Food intake of selenium and sulphur amino acids in tuberculosis patients and healthy adults in Malawi. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis 13: 1313–1315
Gibson RS, Bailey KB, Ampong Romano AB, Thomson CD (2011) Plasma selenium concentrations in pregnant women in two countries with contrasting soil selenium levels. J Trace Elem Med Bio 25:230–235
Gibson RS, Huddle JM (1998) Suboptimal zinc status in pregnant Malawian women: its association with low intakes of poorly available zinc, frequent reproductive cycling, and malaria. Am J Clin Nutr 67:702–709
Hurst R, Siyame EWP, Young SD, Chilimba ADC, Joy EJM, Black CR, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Chilima B, Gondwe J, Kang’ombe D, Stein AJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Gibson RS, Kalimbira AA, Broadley MR (2013) Soil-type influences human selenium status and underlies widespread selenium deficiency risks in Malawi. Sci Rep 3: 1425. DOI: 10.1038/srep01425
Siyame EWP, Hurst R, Wawer AA, Young SD, Broadley MR, Chilimba ADC, Ander EL, Watts MJ, Chilima B, Gondwe J, Kang'ombe D, Kalimbira A, Fairweather-Tait SJ, Bailey KB, Gibson RS (2013) A high prevalence of zinc- but not iron-deficiency among women in rural Malawi: a cross-sectional study. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 83: 176–187
Joy, EJM, Broadley, MR, Young, SD, Black CR, Chilimba, ADC, Ander, EL, Barlow, TS and Watts, MJ*. (2014). A spatially refined food composition table for Malawi, Science Total Environment, (in press)