Even as one in nine people in the world suffers from hunger, the more deceptive culprit contributing to malnutrition is ‘hidden hunger’. It affects over 2 billion people the world over.
Hidden hunger is the deficiency of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
The government schemes to reduce malnutrition are insufficient to address the problem as they focus on providing adequate calorie consumption through energy-rich staples, and not on diversity and quality of the diet.
Food insecurity hits the rural population and the urban poor the hardest.
Indigenous tribal communities, especially mothers and children among them, face the deficiency of micronutrients even though they possess the traditional knowledge of nutrient-rich resources in their environs that could take care of the deficiency. But why so?
Due to reasons like access to markets, food-security programmes and opportunity cost, many tribal communities are transitioning to monotonous diets, which may contribute to hidden hunger in them.
Explore indigenous foods
Dr Suparna Ghosh Jerath of the Indian Institute of Public Health-Delhi (IIPH-Delhi) realised the importance of studying and documenting indigenous foods and food habits, and utilising this knowledge to address malnutrition in tribal communities.
She, along with her collaborators, has initiated a range of studies in the tribal areas of Jharkhand.
The research group intends to design effective and affordable diet plans for the tribal groups by including their indigenous foods. The group has been conducting group discussions with the communities, and then household surveys to explore the food habits of the Santhal, Sauria Paharia, Munda and Ho tribal groups in particular.
They list the indigenous foods consumed by them and by referring to previous publications, or by doing nutritional analysis in labs, they examine the nutritive values of several of these food items.
The researchers found a high level of iron in the greens consumed by Santhals like kantha-arak (Euphorbia granulata) and calcium and beta-carotene in ohoic-arak (Boerhavia diffusa), lapong-arak (Aerua lanata), and dhurup-arak (Leucas cephalotes).
Greens like Beng saag (Centella asiatica), consumed by Munda people, are rich in micronutrients, and are preferred as medicinal herbs.
“This knowledge can be disseminated to reinforce the community’s traditional knowledge and increase the utilisation of food,” shares Dr Archna Singh, an associate professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and a collaborator in this study.
The researchers also conducted nutritional status assessments, such as measuring their height and weight.
They used finger-prick blood samples to measure the level of micronutrients in the Santhal and Sauria Paharia tribes.
More vulnerable groups
Although all the tribal groups studied are facing undernutrition, the Sauria Paharias are the most deprived ones.
They live up in the mountains, and because of their geographical isolation, not much is documented about their food habits and nutrition status.
“Including them in our study was important because they are close to nature and not in direct contact with urban areas; their knowledge about the diversity of indigenous foods and the levels of utilisation is intact,” shares Dr Ghosh Jerath.
The researchers found that this tribe knows about more than 193 varieties of indigenous food.
Sadly, the overall calorie intake and micronutrient consumption in the Sauria Paharias is much lesser when compared to the other tribes.
In fact, the dietary diversity in the habitual diets of women and children under five is grossly low.
Treasure trove in disuse
The researchers found that women of the Sauria Paharia tribal community who consume indigenous food take in more calcium and Vitamin A.
Dietary surveys in this community revealed that around 60% of the population consumed some indigenous food and that too in inadequate quantity. Consumption was also not uniform across seasons.
“Although they know about hundreds of green leafy vegetables, when we ask them about their recent meal, it is usually potato and rice or rice and one green. So, the diversity reflected in their knowledge is not translated into actual consumption. This might be one of the reasons why they are facing undernutrition,” explains Dr Ghosh Jerath.
Factors restricting the consumption of indigenous foods are multiple.
Some of these include high opportunity cost — collecting some of these foods may not be easy as some indigenous foods like greens, mushrooms, roots and tubers are available in the jungle. Moreover, women sometimes find it difficult to obtain them as they have to manage domestic chores when men migrate to cities for work.
Factors like climate change with lower rainfall and longer summers have also led to lower access to indigenous foods.
A long way to go
Dr Ghosh Jerath and her group are compiling information on indigenous food and want to create illustrated, customised awareness material about the food’s nutritional value and recipes, which the Anganwadi workers serving the tribal areas can make use of. Continuous field studies are an integral part of these projects. Working in the remote and disturbed areas is not easy for the team. When it’s monsoon and sowing time, large varieties of indigenous foods become available. But it’s difficult to interact with tribal communities, as they are busy in the fields.
“Although we have a local team of field investigators helping us immensely in convincing the community about the benefits of these studies, the primary issue for me was convincing the community to provide a blood sample for biomarker testing. The refusal rate was quite high in some places,” says Dr Singh. The need for changing their fieldwork plan according to the situation are additional challenges.
Dr Ghosh Jerath informs that in the final deliverable of their study, they plan to use statistical tools in which one can plug-in data such as the nutritive value of indigenous foods, their availability, the levels of dietary intake of indigenous foods, the nutritional status of the tribes, market access, and cost of food, and get affordable diet plans for these communities.
“This will be an evidence-based package of feasible, practical and affordable diets created by using indigenous foods. We hope we’ll be able to meet the micronutrient needs as well as keep the diet practical for them to follow,” signs off Dr Ghosh Jerath.
(The writer is with Gubbi Labs, Bengaluru)