portugalscience

MORfood, the project that wants to help fight malnutrition in the world

Combating child malnutrition in developing countries is the main objective of the project “MORfood – Microencapsulation of Moringa oleifera extracts and their application in functional foods”, led by researcher Licínio Ferreira, from the University of Coimbra (UC).

The project, with a duration of three years, has funding of around 230 thousand euros, granted by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) and by the Aga Khan, a foundation that supports projects in the fields of health and education, namely scientific and technological development aimed at improving the quality of life on the African continent.

In addition to the team from the University of Coimbra, through the Faculty of Science and Technology (FCTUC), the Faculty of Pharmacy (FFUC) and PRODEQ – Non-profit Association of the Department of Chemical Engineering (DEQ) of FCTUC, researchers also participate in the project. from the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto (FEUP) and the Agostinho Neto University (UAN), in Angola.

MORfood focuses on producing microcapsules rich in bioactive compounds extracted from Moringa oleifera, known as the plant of life, which will be incorporated into certain foods (bread, yoghurts and juices) for school children, between 4 and 10 years old.

Moringa oleifera, a species native to northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, is one of the “most nutritious plants in the world, very rich, for example, in protein, vitamins and minerals such as calcium and potassium. It is a plant that is already used by African populations to combat a wide range of pathologies, such as asthma, bronchitis, hypertension, and diabetes, among many others. Our study focuses on extracts from the leaves, the part of the plant that is richest in nutrients”, explains Licínio Ferreira, professor at FCTUC and researcher at the Research Center for Chemical Process Engineering and Forest Products (CIEPQPF).

The team bet on microencapsulation to enrich food, because, according to the study coordinator, it is a technology that has many advantages, in this case, “it protects the biological activity of some compounds that are extracted from the plant and that would otherwise be degraded. For example, in the case of bread, one of the foods we have selected, the microcapsules can be introduced into the flour itself, and if the compounds are not incorporated into these microcapsules, their properties would degrade and disappear during bread-making, hence the importance of microcapsules”.

In this first stage of the project, the researchers are characterizing moringa leaf samples from Angola, in order to obtain the phytochemical and nutritional composition of the leaves. After this characterization, which is essential, studies are carried out on the extraction of compounds and selection of the most suitable for the purpose of the project, that is, compounds that are important to combat child malnutrition.

Before the microencapsulation phase, the extracts will be selected, “because eventually there will be undesirable compounds that have to be removed. From this selection, we will obtain enriched fractions of macronutrients and micronutrients that are beneficial to combat child malnutrition, namely carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, among others”, explains Lícino Ferreira.

At the end of the project, functional foods (enriched) with microcapsules loaded with nutrients extracted from moringa will be tested with Angolan children. These are the so-called sensory acceptability tests, to assess the reaction of the child population to this type of food.

Born in Angola and aware of the reality of child malnutrition in that country, Licínio Ferreira notes that child malnutrition is a major global scourge. “According to the 2020 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), about 8.9% of the world’s population was undernourished in 2019, which represents 690 million people. Also according to that report, this number corresponds to an increase of 60 million people compared to 2014. It is a scourge that tends to worsen over the years”.

If the project achieves the expected results, the team will then try to establish a partnership with UNICEF, so that foods enriched with moringa extracts can reach a greater number of developing countries.

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