Can Zimbabwe worm its way out of child malnutrition?

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

getty | rainer lesniewski
getty | rainer lesniewski

Related tags Insect mopane worm Zinc lysine

A pioneering project is underway to combat malnutrition in school aged children in Zimbabwe through the development of an insect protein enriched porridge.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield and Abertay University are collaborating on a three-year project to create an affordable, nutrient-rich food source using mopane worms (large caterpillars), with the aim of improving the health and nutrition status of children in some of Zimbabwe’s poorest communities.

“Incorporating insects into staple food has the potential to tackle nutritional deficiencies, particularly of iron and zinc, that are prevalent in many developing countries,”​ project lead Dr Alberto Fiore of Abertay University told Nutraingredients.

“The worms will need to become an ingredient in the porridge that is currently made with corn and represents a staple food in Zimbabwe. Scaling up mopane productivity – one of the project’s objectives – will make production more cost-efficient,” ​he said.

Edible insects: an accepted tradition

The FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations has identified edible insects as a sustainable alternative for closing the anticipated food deficit gap, as they are high in protein (52-70%) and micronutrients such as iron and zinc and have a low carbon footprint. They also have a similar amino acid profile to meat, including essential amino acids such as lysine.

Consumption of insects – and mopane worms in particular – is already common practice among rural and urban Zimbabweans, however, according to Dr Fiore, the worms are not currently produced on a commercial scale and their effect on the nutritional status of this population has not yet been investigated.

The researchers will analyse the nutritional quality of insect-cereal porridge that is already consumed in Zimbabwe and will modify these recipes to develop “locally acceptable, nutrient-dense complimentary foods with improved protein and mineral bioavailability”.

Dr Fiore confirmed that there are two local companies taking part in the initiative who can manufacture the porridge using sustainable material for the packaging.

Human intervention trial

The researchers then plan to run a 12-month human intervention trial in which they will evaluate the effect of including insect-enriched porridge in the diet.

“We plan to evaluate the effects of daily supplementation with the insect-based porridge on linear growth and micronutrient status as well as cardio-metabolic traits in primary school children, comparing it with conventional white maize-based porridge,” ​said Dr Fiore.  

Key to producing a fortified porridge on a mass-market scale will be upscaling the country’s insect farming infrastructure to ensure availability of supply. 

“One of our objectives is to work with communities that are already practising traditional mopane worm rearing techniques to provide acceptable methods for upscaling to commercial rearing,” ​said Dr Fiore.

The £1m project, which has been funded through a grant from UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund scheme, started in September 2020 and runs for three years. The intervention trial is planned for year two, with commercial production expected to follow after that. The project involves researchers from the University of Sheffield and Abertay University as well as representatives from three universities in Zimbabwe.

“Longer term we envisage that this culturally relevant project could have wider applications for children and pregnant/breast-feeding women in different regions of the country,”​ said Dr Fiore.

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