Saving sight with orange maize

A new study shows that orange maize could help Zambians overcome malnutrition, a major challenge in the country.

Dr Amanda Palmer, of Johns Hopkins Centre for Human Nutrition, headed a research team in the Mkushi district that conducted a trial in which they studied the visual responses of children (in the district), with low-grade vitamin A deficiency. The eyesight of the children, all between the ages of four and eight years, showed marked improvement six months after starting the trial, and eating orange maize.
Research indicated that vitamin A, biofortified orange maize could significantly improve visual function in children.

“In populations that are vitamin A deficient, the eyes can respond well to a good source of vitamin A, such as orange maize, in a fairly short time-span,” said Palmer.

The most severe form of vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness and even death. Globally, about 500 000 children lose their sight, because of vitamin A deficiency, every year. In the less severe form (that can also lead to child deaths), too little vitamin A can result in impaired ability to see when there is little, or low, light.
According to the United Nations Childrens’ Fund, about 54% of Zambian children under the age of five do not consume enough vitamin A in their diet.

Orange maize development

The orange maize was developed by HarvestPlus and is promoted by the Zambian Government. The ministry of agriculture and livestock includes orange maize in the material supplies of the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP).

HarvestPlus used conventional methods (non-GMO) to breed this maize, and increase levels of beta-carotene in the cob. The orange colour pigment in the maize converts into vitamin A in the body.

Other good sources of vitamin A are orange fruit, dark leafy vegetables and meat. White maize does not contain vitamin A (it has no orange colour), and switching to orange maize could provide up to half of the body’s daily vitamin A requirements.

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