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Another look at potato's potential in infant diets

- attractive but bulky

Down-to-earth experiments in child nutrition in Peru have brought to light, once
again, the potentialities of the potato.

A team of doctors at the Nutrition Research Institute in Lima (a private, non-profit organization) has been testing and evaluating the use of potatoes in feeding malnourished children. Led by Dr. George Graham, Head of the Human Nutrition Division of Johns Hopkins University, and by Dr. William MacLean, the Lima researchers have evolved potato formulas that achieve their revitalizing purpose at a cost considerably lower than milk. The researchers hope that their efforts will interest other nutrition specialists and be of use in a wider field.

Nearly 50 percent of Peruvian children suffer from some form of malnutrition, an illustratively large group among the world's approximately 100 million children who are underfed.

Recovery of a malnourished child takes at least one to three months. Undernutrition or malnutrition may result from inadequate total intake of food, from lack of appropriate food or from infection, which may make the child unable to use the food consumed. In the latter cases, the result may be deficiencies of protein and essential amino acids.

According to MacLean, the most common cause of malnutrition in young children is early weaning from the breast to the use of inadequate substitutes. The two basic types of malnutrition are marasmus and kwashiorkor. Children with marasmus have received a reasonably balanced diet but in too small quantities. With kwashiorkor (which is frequently preceded by measles), the child may have had almost adequate calories, but protein is deficient.

Institute patients are the subjects of three types of nutritional studies. There is the initial evaluation to determine damage and necessary action. Next, a comparative study is conducted and the researchers measure the amount of nitrogen absorbed and how the patient is using the nitrogen. Finally, in a longterm study, blood tests are made, and measurements of changes in the skin, growth of the patient, the quality of protein in the diet and abnormal digestion.

Malnourished children often do not have adequately developed digestive systems, so they must be fed easily digestible foods when they enter the Institute, says Dr. Guillermo Lopez de Romana in his survey of the role of the potato in child nutrition, presented to scientists of the International Potato Centre (CIP), with whom the Institute researchers work closely.

The small patients, usually between three months and one year old, are fed diets in which 25, 50 and 75 percent of the calorie intake and up to 100 percent of the protein come from potatoes. Blenderizing reduces the bulk of the potatoes. Additional fat, carbohydrates and a vitamin-and-mineral mixture are awed.

The potato formula has been tested for the amount a child can consume, fat absorption, maintenance of adequate serum proteins, acceptability and tolerance. "The potato is favourable in all these factors and the nitrogen retention from the potato is better than for rice or wheat," says MacLean. The quality of the protein of the potato is very high, he noted.

According to Dr. Sidki Sadik, Head of the Physiology Department at CIP, scientists are attempting to overcome the bulk problem by processing potatoes with simple machinery that could be constructed at village level. This has been made possible through a grant from the International Development Research Centre in Canada. Considering the use of such processed food in a wider field, he said, "If you feed more potatoes to poor people, you have to make potatoes more available."

To experts of the Food Policy and Nutrition Division at FAO, the availability of an additional tool for rehabilitation of undernourished children is always welcome. There are a number of these already in existence, but in some places potato may be a better base material. However, the experts said, it is another matter to try to extend the use of the product to villages. According to them, the key to getting enough protein out of a starchy food is reduction of bulkiness. Ordinarily, too much water is needed to prepare an acceptable pap and the baby cannot eat enough to get the needed amount of protein in his daily feedings. In the hospital, the problem can be solved with blenders and perhaps even enzymes, but in the village this will not be possible. A prepared food, manufactured even with simple equipment, would cost more money than potatoes and might therefore not reach the most vulnerable groups, unless heavily subsidized by the government.

However, the FAO nutrition specialists agreed that, if organizations like the International Potato Centre and the Nutrition Research Institute of Lima were behind it, some workable solution might well be found.

This would not appear impossible. Since the potato first travelled from the high Andes around 1585, it has blossomed into over a thousand varieties with amazing adaptability to climates, altitudes and seasons.

Finding it contained essentials they lacked in their diet and was simple to grow, scurvy-plagued seafarers promoted its cultivation at their ports of call. A continuous spectacular spread carried it to New Zealand in 1773, Sweden in 1775, Africa in 1776, Tibet in 1800, Persia in 1844,the East Indies in 1882.

In Europe, the potato took hold shortly after its arrival, resisting the damp cold that frequently destroyed staple crops of rye, wheat, oats and barley. Also, potatoes remained ready to harvest from She earth when standing crops were devastated by political unrest and local warfare. Frederick the Great of Prussia enforced potato growing on a large scale in 1744, as did Catherine the Great of Russia shortly afterwards.

It was found that potatoes yielded more per hectare than cereals and, despite the high water content, the food value was greater. The Irish economy, based on small farms, became dependent on the potato crop. A typical Irish peasant family consumed 3.5 kg of potatoes per person per day. This diet, according to a nutrition expert of the 1800s, more than equalled in nourishment the customary bread and cheese of English and continental workers "and filled the Irishman's belly." When disaster struck with a blight in the 1840s, 1 million Irish died of hunger, and 2 million emigrated.

The annual world production of potatoes is about 290 million tons. About 30 percent of this is grown in the USSR, 15 percent in Poland, 10 percent in Germany (FR), 5 percent in Germany (DR), France and the United States. Production per caput is greatest in Poland at about 1 200 kg.

Now again, when crops in many small needy countries are devastated and multitudes are hungry, the success of the low-priced formula for undernourished children evolved in Lima may well draw attention and result in further research into the potentialities of the common potato.