Vitamin A-rich bananas offer new hope to address vitamin A deficiency

Vitamin A-rich bananas offer new hope to address vitamin A deficiency

Researchers in East Africa are introducing banana varieties from across the world to address severe vitamin A deficiency. Taste tests help to identify and fast track new varieties that consumers prefer.

Vitamin A deficiency is high in the East African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, DRC and Kenya, ranging from 39% to 64%. Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections in children and it contributes to poor pregnancy outcomes among women, besides being the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.

In East Africa and the Great Lakes Region, bananas are an important part of the diet for over 100 million people who eat an average of 250 to 400 kg of bananas a year. Banana varieties grown in this region are generally low in vitamin A with 7 to 27 nmol g-1 dry weight, but some varieties from South Asia, West Africa and the Pacific have levels (as much as 220 nmol g-1). Vitamin A deficiency could be avoided by introducing these banana varieties that are naturally rich in the vitamin. This is particularly useful for banana, which is difficult to breed.

Bioversity International and partners screened over 400 varieties of bananas and found a number that were rich in vitamin A. But healthy food is of little value if people will not eat it. So, researchers from Bioversity International and partners did taste tests (organoleptic, or sensory tests) at eight locations in Burundi and in North Kivu and South Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The study compared eight introduced varieties (five for cooking and three dessert varieties) with 10 varieties grown locally (six cooking and four dessert types). Researchers prepared samples of the bananas in various popular styles: roasted with and without the peel, fried, and raw (for the dessert bananas).

Farmers tested the varieties for qualities like ease of peeling, pulp appearance and taste. Credit: Bioversity International

At each site, panels of farmers (50% women) evaluated the varieties for peel appearance, ease of peeling, pulp appearance, aroma, texture in hand, texture in mouth, taste and overall acceptability. While there was some variation by gender and by region, in general farmers gave some local varieties a score of 4 (out of 5), but the introduced Apantu plantain variety (from Ghana) also scored a 4. All three regions and both men and women accepted some cooking bananas, and the communities in Burundi and North Kivu accepted new dessert bananas. It is not really surprising that the locally grown varieties scored a bit higher than introduced ones; after all, people like the foods that they are used to eating. But in some regions the farmers ranked introduced plantains Apantu, Bira, Pelipita and Lahi, and dessert bananas Lai and To’o nearly as high as the local ones. People may learn to like the new varieties more as they become familiar with them, especially if the nutritional benefits are also explained. Children who eat just one of these introduced bananas per day will get enough vitamin A to avoid blindness from vitamin deficiency.

The introduced varieties are already being grown locally by participating farmers. Over 1,400 farmers have received more than 11,000 cuttings or suckers to plant their own banana gardens.

Telesphore Ngayure, a Burundian farmer, has grown these varieties since 2014. “After eating some of the bananas at my home, my neighbors liked them so much that they asked for the suckers so they too could plant them in their fields,” he said.

To scale up these findings, Bioversity International and partners have reached 9,797 households in Burundi and DRC with crucial information on general banana management, nutrition and dietary diversity. This initiative has now been extended to Tanzania and Uganda and will soon reach Kenya. An efficacy study is being planned to measure the improvement in people’s vitamin A levels by eating the improved bananas. This rapid identification of vitamin A-rich banana varieties that are acceptable to East African farmers will ensure that a major food crop is more nutritious, offering new hope to address the crippling effects of vitamin-A deficiency for 100 million people.

Photo: Over 1,400 farmers have received more than 11,000 cuttings or suckers of the vitamin A-rich varieties. Credit: Bioversity International