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Sweet Potato Boosts Health in Young Children

Orange-shirted women promote the health benefits of the orange-fleshed sweet potato during a community theater performance in Uganda.
Orange-shirted women promote the health benefits of the orange-fleshed sweet potato during a community theater performance in Uganda.

A new study recently published by HarvestPlus, a program that is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, shows that the Vitamin A rich orange sweet potato (OSP) can reduce both the prevalence and duration of diarrhea among young children in Mozambique.

Diarrhea is a killer disease on a vastly larger scale than commonly known. It’s especially deadly among the 40 percent of children in Africa who lack Vitamin A.They are at increased risk for diseases such as diarrhea, which kills more than 350,000 children under five every year.

HarvestPlus and its partners developed and disseminated Vitamin A rich orange sweet potato which was found to improve health in young children.

Alan de Brauw, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, (IFPRI), and co-author of the study said, “Basically, Vitamin A helps to build up your immune system, and when children don’t have enough, their immune system won’t work as well as it should.”

He said by introducing Vitamin A into the diet through the orange sweet potato, they are better able to fight off infections, which are very common in children in Mozambique.

“So, it’s not only a major nutritional problem, but because it leads to diarrhea and dehydration, etc., there are estimates that up to 30% of deaths of under- fives in Mozambique can be at least indirectly attributed to diarrhea,” highlighted the senior researcher.

During the rainy season, de Brauw said the orange sweet potato is easy to grow.

“You should probably spread a little bit of ash to disinfect the vines and that works as a natural pesticide. So, we taught that technique,” he said.

However, he emphasized that the orange sweet potato is not that easy to maintain and he and other scientists are working on a future study to find the best method to maintain the crop.

During the dry season, the vines of the orange sweet potato need to be maintained in wet low-lying areas such as river beds. But these areas are scarce, said de Brauw. So, one alternative is for growers to “re-sprout” the potato. “Basically, you leave some potatoes in the ground to re-sprout when the rains come again,” though he cautioned they do not grow as well when re-sprouted.

“So we taught either to keep a small garden of vines near the house where you could just pour waste water on them to maintain them during the dry season – which is eight months long. Or, we taught them to take vines down to the lowlands to maintain them during the rainy season. It’s a bit [difficult] but when people are able to maintain them, they are a good source of Vitamin A,” said de Brauw.

As far as taste, he said consumer acceptance studies show that the majority of people do like the orange sweet potato at least as well as the white sweet potato. More importantly, young children like to eat them – especially when boiled.

De Brauw said the potatoes are being disseminated in other African countries such as Kenya and Uganda.

“They may not have the same statistical impact on diarrhea incidences of reduction that we found in this particular study, in part because Vitamin A deficiency levels aren’t as high and it makes it easier to see statistically, but that said that doesn’t mean that they don’t have great potential health impacts. It just may be hard to show it statistically,” he said.