Research on Cowpeas Aims to Stump Stunting in Malawi

November 30, 2017
Mark ManaryMothers and children test out legume-based flour for the cowpea research study.

Aisha was worried about her one-year-old son Chisomo. Although he was eating normally, Chisomo was sleepier than usual and wasn’t spending as much time playing with his siblings. She didn’t understand why.

What Aisha didn’t know was that Chisomo was lacking the nutrients needed to support his rapid growth. The traditional nsima – a dense, corn-based porridge – she was feeding him wasn’t enough.

A year-long study by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes, led by Michigan State University, is offering new hope to researchers, and mothers like Aisha, looking to tackle the problem of malnutrition before it has a lifelong negative effect on young children. Chisomo was asked to participate, as were all other children over 6 months in the villages selected for the study.

In rural Malawi, children between the ages of 6 and 12 months normally transition from exclusive breastfeeding to mixed feeding with complementary foods. In traditional Sub-Saharan African societies, monotonous, protein-poor and micronutrient-poor starches, such as maize, cassava and sorghum, dominate these complementary foods. Many transitioning babies struggle to get the proper protein and nutrients they need to grow, right at a time in their life when good nutrition matters more than any other.

Physicians and scientists have noted that stunting – a condition that results from undernutrition early in life – begins to occur shortly after the transition away from exclusive breastfeeding and increases progressively during the first several years of life, which led them to question whether a more nutrient-dense complementary food might help reduce it. They initiated a research project with the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab to learn what foods already available in Malawi may help families improve the nutrition of their young children. For the past year, the project has explored the potential of cowpea, which has three to four times more protein than corn and is rich in dietary fiber, starch, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Cowpea grows well in Malawi and is a hardy, drought-tolerant crop.

Project researchers first tested cowpea flour-based recipes to ensure they not only met World Health Organization guidelines, but also appealed to infants and young children. The final recipe, taste-tested by more than 100 infants, used roasted cowpeas that were milled into flour that the infants loved.

Researchers then studied whether infants in 17 villages across Southern Malawi who were fed the cowpea-based formula grew better than others who were fed the more traditional formula. They measured the children at regular intervals over six months.

The results of the trial showed that cowpea – when used as a complementary food – reduced stunting from 35 percent to 30 percent among the children that ate it. 

Mark Manary, a researcher involved with the study, said they are publishing and sharing the results within the academic field.

“I am truly delighted to see the results from the legume intervention study showing improved growth,” he said. “Many studies have been done [to try to] reduce stunting and [have] shown no effect. [But] here we have a simple food [that] is part of a simple fix for stunting.”

After the study concluded, participating villages were taught how to incorporate cowpea into infant foods. Because cowpea is locally recognized and roasting it is common practice, researchers are optimistic that families will use more of it to boost nutrition among kids.

For families like Aisha’s in Malawi who are concerned about the health of their children, cowpea flour porridge could be a key piece of the nutrition puzzle. As researchers continue to evaluate the potential role of cowpeas and other grain legumes in other aspects of infant health, hope for a healthier future is rising.

As for Aisha, she can attest that her son loves the cowpeas.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes, led by Michigan State University, contributes to food security and economic growth in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America through knowledge and technology generation that strengthens grain legume (beans, cowpeas, tepary beans, etc.) productivity and value chains.