Boosting Immunity: Neglected and underutilized crops could improve health

Undernutrition and HIV infection are strongly linked. 

A variety of foods which are common and readily available in many households in Africa. The WHO has given guidelines on the consumption of fats and carbohydrates. PHOTO/Courtesy.
A variety of foods which are common and readily available in many households in Africa. The WHO has given guidelines on the consumption of fats and carbohydrates. PHOTO/Courtesy.
  • WHO reaffirms that adults should limit total fat intake to 30% of total energy intake or less. 
  • Undernutrition has affected over 180 million people living with HIV. 
  • Scientists estimate that about 400,000 plant species exist on earth, with at least half of these species edible for humans. 

Research conducted by leading nutritionists from Maseno University, in partnership with the University of California and Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), found that undernutrition is a major concern for health in Kenya, frustrating concerted efforts to reduce new HIV infections. 

The research report, which was released on November 16 during a Sustainable Development for Health (SD4H) seminar, established that undernutrition is common in Africa and a major cause of morbidity and mortalities among people living with HIV.

Speaking at the seminar dubbed Food Product Processing from Neglected and Underutilized Crops for Health and Wealth Creation, Lucia Mutwika, a Clinical Nutritionist at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (JOOTRH), reported that HIV increases the nutrient requirements and impairs the nutrient intake and uptake. 

She acknowledged that the research provided key areas of concern in efforts to contain the continued spread of HIV. 

According to her, the research established that energy requirements increase by 10% in the asymptomatic stage and 20-30% in the symptomatic stage, for healthy weight gain and daily physical activity.

“Adequate intake of micronutrients such as iron, zinc and selenium strengthen the immune system. It is important for individuals to enhance the intake of these nutrients. The intake of caloric and these micronutrients are important for people living with HIV,” Mutwika said.

She revealed that despite efforts in HIV care, morbidity and mortality rates have remained high, with about 650,000 people living with HIV dying annually, with undernutrition cited as a main contributor.

Undernutrition, she says, has affected over 180 million people living with HIV. 

Dr. Mutwika stressed that neglecting the intake of micronutrients will result in underweight and micronutrient deficiencies, hence weakening the immune system. 

The researcher underscored the healthy benefits of iron, zinc and selenium, which are found in neglected and underutilized crops.  

Better nutritional status

The study, which sought to evaluate the efficacy of cassava and simsim crackers in improving the nutritional status of HIV seropositive adults, confirmed the high presence of iron, zinc, selenium, and caloric in cassava roots, and simsim seeds. 

The study, according to the report, prevailed upon HIV seropositive adults to focus on indigenous foods, which are usually underutilized, yet contain high levels of micronutrients.

“Despite being ignored as a menu in many households, cassava is rich in micronutrients such as iron and zinc. 

There is need for awareness creation on the health benefits of these foods, which are not only available locally but also known in the local set up. 

Fresh cassava, which research has found to contain high levels of micronutrients, hence should be encouraged in the diet of HIV seropositive people. PHOTO/Courtesy.

The intake of these underutilized foods promises an immunity boost among HIV seropositive adults,” added Mutwika.

The dietary intake of these foods, according to the research, should be guided by the frequency of meals, types of food consumed, quantity of food and the method of food preparation. 

The research established that consistent use of neglected and underutilized crops is key in enhancing the acquisition of rich micronutrients.

According to the report, 842 million people, which translates to 10% of the world’s population, suffer from chronic hunger, a situation that is due to micronutrient deficiencies. 

It elaborates that, despite simsim being ranked among the world’s healthiest foods, it has always been neglected, with cassava still being produced at subsistence level. 

The report called for urgent turnaround on large-scale production of crops, which for so long have been neglected and underutilized, such as pumpkins, cassava, simsim, millet, and sinderleaf.

Even though the subsistence cultivation of cassava has been linked to high perishability, poor processing, and dislike of taste, the report gives very clear guidelines on how best to process the neglected and underutilized crops. 

Large-scale farming

It justifies the need for large-scale farming, acknowledging the high number of HIV seropositive adults who highly depend on these foods to enhance their immune systems.

“These largely neglected crops come with a range of health benefits. For a fact, they are a valuable source of nutrition, adapt easily to harsh environments, and generally resist attacks from pests and pathogens. 

This is a clear indication that these crops do not pose any challenge in their cultivation. 

It is time communities thought through this line in order to contain and minimize the effects of HIV among HIV seropositive adults,” explained Mutwika.

Florence Habwe, a Lecturer in the Department of Nutrition and Health, Maseno University, says the local populations are familiar with these crops, and they are easily acceptable. 

The crops, according to her, have a longer shelf life than the exotic crops. This, practically, makes them reliable alternatives in promoting healthy living in the society.

“Say for example, the millet and the sinderleaf, they are very cheap compared to other exotic crops, which are normally hard to come by and are vulnerable to pest attacks,” says Dr. Habwe, who is also a Sustainable Development for Health Post–doctorate Fellow.

The utilization of the neglected and underutilized crops could help reduce perishability, which could lead to food poisoning, and improve marketability. 

The report identifies iron and zinc deficiency rates as severe, and poses consequences of poor economic development, setting a vicious cycle effect.

“These deficiencies pose a major problem for Kenya’s poor population, with 60% of them iron deficient with 73% prevalent in the Lake Basin region. 

In order to tap these micronutrients, there is need for safe processing technologies that could reduce perishability and increase the acceptability of the underutilized crops,” Dr. Habwe says.

Funding traditional recipes

The report called for effective funding of traditional recipes as a long-term measure as not only a step towards cushioning food security but also reducing the effects of HIV seropositive among adults. 

World Health Organization (WHO) defines neglected and underutilized crops as having high nutritional value and being a good source of micronutrients, protein, energy, and fiber. 

Maseno University research students at the University’s food lab. PHOTO/Maseno University.

It states that neglected and underutilized crops are nutrient-dense, profitable, climate-resilient, and fundamental to improving dietary and production diversity.

The Maseno-based research comes at a time when “The Future Smart Initiative on Zero Hunger”, a publication coordinated by the Food Agricultural Organization (FAO), recognized that neglected and underutilized crops are entry points in efforts to address hunger and malnutrition. 

The initiative identified a range of healthy benefits that included diversifying nutritional intake and uptake economic and environmental benefits.

Scientists estimate that about 400,000 plant species exist on earth, with at least half of these species edible for humans. 

Unfortunately, human beings consume only 200 plant species, which include, among others, wheat, maize and rice. 

The scientists claim this dependency on just a fraction of crops is dangerous to the general health of human beings.

“Neglected and underutilized crops are important for local food systems and nutrition. There is no denying they play crucial role in socio-cultural traditions, and of course medicinal use. 

They are key in income generation and contribute to securing non-food linked ecosystem services from water flow, climate mitigation, and water quality control,” says Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Member of the High-Level Panel for Food Security and Nutrition, Committee of World Food Security.

Dorothy Shaver, a Global Sustainability Lead for Knorr, Unilever, says the food we eat every day comes from agricultural diversity, contributing directly to well-being, nutrition, and food security. 

The types of food grown and the ways they are produced, according to her, have a great impact on agricultural diversity, which highly impacts our health. 

Dorothy Shaver, Global Sustainability Lead for Knorr, Unilever, at the IESE Responsible Business Club Conference in London. PHOTO/Dorothy Shaver.

“Food insecurity and malnutrition are major health concerns in Africa. To achieve Zero Hunger, which stands at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals, food systems have to be improved and dietary arrangements and patterns have to be normalized. 

There is continued disconnect in the chain among production, consumption and nutrition,” explains Emma Kaudo, a nutritionist based in Kisumu.

Ms. Kaudo says consumers are normally unaware of the healthy food preferences and stick to dietary choices that do not promote healthy living. 

Poor diets, according to her, are still the norm, as people depend on a few staple foods that are deficient of important nutrients and key minerals.

On July 17, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO), on its website, published guidelines on consumption of total fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates. 

Emma Kaudo, a Nutrition and Dietetics Specialist based in Kisumu. She says people are unaware of healthy foods and stick to bad dietary choices. PHOTO/Emma Kaudo.

It says the guidelines contain recommendations that aim to reduce the risk of unhealthy living and weight gain and other diet-related non-communicable complications, such as cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. 

The health body reaffirms that adults should limit total fat intake to 30% of total energy intake or less. 

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It recommends that fat consumed by everyone 2 years of age and older should be unsaturated fatty acids, with no more than 10% of total energy intake from saturated fatty acids.   

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Mr. Misori holds a Bachelor's degree in Education Arts, English and English literature from Mount Kenya University. He is the author of the book ''Village Under Siege'', a book reviewer, and a science journalist passionate about environment, health, climate change, education and agriculture. His email address is



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