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2011 March blog

Reggie Annan

Last month I shared more thoughts on nutrition leadership and said I would write down here my presentation on leadership at the International Congress on Nutrition in Bangkok. So here it is, below. I also write about diversifying food to improve nutrient intake and reduce malnutrition in West Africa and the efforts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Biodiversity International and others to achieve this. Plus I invite serenity with the view above of Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, bordered by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Food diversity in West Africa

We need to protect street markets

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that, over the last century, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost, as farmers worldwide have abandoned their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. Further, around 30 per cent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction, and six breeds are lost each month.

Also, 75 per cent of the world's food is now generated from only twelve plants and five animal species. Of the 4 per cent of the 250-300,000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Three – rice, corn and wheat – contribute nearly 60 per cent of the protein and calories obtained by humans from plants. Animals provide some 30 per cent of human requirements for food, and 12 per cent of the world's population live almost entirely on products from ruminants (1).

Walking down the aisles of supermarkets in Europe, America and the many malls that have sprang up in Africa, you could easily think that the modern globalised food production system has led to more food choices. But this is not so. What is actually happening, is that very few varieties of the same crops are being produced. Different brands of the same products on the shelves deceive us into thinking that there is increased diversity. The main reason why, is the industrialisation of food systems. This results in increased dependence on highly processed food, and less time spent preparing and cooking meals.

Happily, in Africa there is relatively good biodiversity, and even in major cities there are still open-air markets, such as the one pictured here and above in Lagos, Nigeria, where fresh food is brought in from local farms to be sold. Sadly though, in many African countries, it is more and more considered to be 'lower class' to shop in markets and to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. It is increasingly more 'cool' to be found with a trolley filled with processed food in a mall. than with a basket of fresh food from a street market, like buying fresh pepper from the woman above. Even in many rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa, as soon as a little stall is opened where imported canned processed foods are sold, people attach status and esteem villagers who can buy from these stalls.

This troublesome trend needs addressing. Africans should feel that it is a privilege to enjoy fresh and diverse food from their own country and locality. I understood this when I first visited Europe. When I was growing up in Ghana, free range eggs were looked down on. Commercially reared chicken which had probably been reared under intense light and 'bad feed' indicated affluence. Taken as a whole, this increased preference for processed foods, driven by vigorous adverting and marketing by very big companies, has to be a reason for the double burden of undernutrition and overnutrition in lower-income countries such as those of Africa.

Those who avoid open air markets may say that they are dirty breeding ground for infection. Sometimes they are. Often open air markets include heaps of rubbish and a dumping ground. But these are reasons to protect markets where fresh and probably indigenous foods are more likely to be sold and to make them more attractive. Otherwise some decades or even years from now, our fresh and diverse foods will be replaced with less healthier, monotonous and processed options on supermarket shelves, and fresh food will become too expensive for the common people not able to grow their own.

People who are hungry need food, and some would say, any food. But in trying to achieve food and nutrition security, we do not want to create other problems. It is like advising that moderately malnourished children should be given refined starches and sugar. These are foods but they only provide almost empty calories, and are not suitable unless fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Recently in Namibia, a friend from Nigeria told me that in Nigeria there are so many fruits that there are no English names for some. I am sure there may be vegetables and fruits which have still not been 'discovered' by trained nutritionists, but in suitable traditional combinations sustain and nourish villagers in the more remote rural areas of Africa. We need to investigate such foods, always respecting traditional knowledge and custom, as part of improving food and nutrition security in Africa. Research is also needed on the nutritional facts or composition, and production of these foods. Let us uphold our rich traditional and diversified diets.


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 1999. Women: users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity (available at

West African traditional foods

Vital information for food and health

Good news is the food composition data table for traditional West African foods developed with support from West Africa Health Organisation, Biodiversity International, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The data were compiled from March to August 2010 from seven West African countries, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, and are part of a subset of archival data (1).

The compilers of the database explain that knowing the composition of foods eaten in West Africa is important in studying energy and nutrient intakes of people and populations, and the effect of diet on health and disease. Currently many gaps remain in the information, especially on how different processing methods affect the composition of these foods. Continually developed and updated databases are thus very necessary. The database also enables international research to assess dietary intake and effect on disease, health and well being.

A vital partner in this work is Biodiversity International, the world's leading organisation dedicated to agricultural biodiversity research. It seeks to improve people's lives through better nutrition, especially in low-income countries, and to encourage sustainable farming practices, to secure future food supplies and conservation and use, and to ensure that everyone can grow the food they need (2). Biodiversity International also aims to enhance food and nutrition security, to improve the health and incomes of rural and urban populations, and to preserve social and cultural food tradition.

The new West African traditional food composition table has information on 13 food groups: cereals and cereal products, starchy roots and tubers, legumes and their products, vegetables and their products, fruits and their products, nuts, seeds and their products, meat and poultry and their products, eggs and their products, fish and their products, milk and their products, fat and oils, beverages, and miscellaneous (1). There are data on more than 1500 food items, 173 foods and 30 components. Data were collected for raw foods. and information on cooked food was calculated using yield and nutrient retention factors (2). Information on recipes may be included in future work.


  1. Stadlmayr B, Charrondiere U, Addy P, Samb B, Enujiugha V, Bayili R, Fagbohoun E, Smith I, Thiam I, Burlingame B (eds).Composition of selected foods from West Africa. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome: FAO, 2010.
  2. Biodiversity International. Improving lives through biodiversity research. Accessed at

Young Scientist Award

Leadership from all generations

Here above is the first president of my country, Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, the great African pioneering leader Kwame Nkrumah. He is now revered in Ghana and the whole of Africa, and was a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity. He was overthrown by a coup d'état and was not revered in his later life. But that is human nature. Many times, we do not discover the value of the things we have or the people around us until they are no more. But now for my own thoughts on leadership, presented at the Living Legends ceremony during the most recent International Congress on Nutrition (ICN) in Bangkok, published for the first time here.

In preparation for the ICN, the European Nutrition Leadership Programme, the South East Asia NLP, and the African NLP) decided to present a Young Scientist Award. The aim was to encourage young researchers to develop their careers in nutrition and to help to establish a global network of future nutrition leaders. I met the eligibility criteria, which were that candidates should be final year PhD students or postdoctoral fellows in human nutrition from any country, less than 40 years old, with abstracts accepted for the ICN. We were asked to answer the question: 'Why is leadership important for the future of nutrition research? Describe the role you will play as a leader in nutrition research'. I was chosen and was invited to speak for five minutes on leadership from the younger nutrition scientists' perspective, at the Living Legends ceremony held to honour leading nutritionists over the age of 80.

My presentation

Here is what I said, which sums up my thoughts on leadership in general and for nutrition. It has been a while since the Bangkok ICN, but what I said is still dear to my heart.

After the usual salutations, I said: 'Nutrition research should lead to interventions and programmes that favourably impact communities and people, influencing change to promote health and wellbeing. This requires good leadership.

'Effective, proactive and responsible leadership involves networking, partnership and collaboration, advocacy and lobbying, team building and teamwork, and communication. I would say that there are three essential qualities that make a good leader which sum the above qualities. These are teambuilding and teamwork, effective communication, and being responsible. A good leader with these qualities can work with and in a team, harnessing the strengths and complementing the weaknesses of team members without prejudices...

'Lack of good leadership, found in all levels of society including government, is the reason why nutrition progress is slow and even deteriorating in many countries. It is important to have academic degrees, but good leadership makes the difference'. And referring to the 'living legends' about to be recognised, I said: 'We have no doubts whatsoever that you have made that difference.

'On behalf of the young generation of nutrition scientists, we honour these distinguished gentlemen and ladies... We recognise that your dedication and outstanding achievements have greatly contributed to the advancement in the field of nutrition for the benefits of mankind. Your selfless and relentless commitment to nutritional science in the field of teaching, research and public health; and pursuit of nutritional health well being both nationally and internationally, is an excellent example for everyone present, and worthy of emulation.

'I must say that the young up and coming scientists in the field of nutrition have a lot to learn from your leadership capabilities. We are not only inspired to continue your good work, in fact necessity is laid upon us to make a difference as you have and posterity would not forgive us if we fail.

'You have spent the best of your years to raise the profile and the nutrition agenda and we look forward to doing the same, if not more. We are sure that looking back, you would be convinced that your achievements are worth the effort. We wish you the best in your future endeavours and look forward to making the most of the legacy you have left behind for us. Once again, we congratulate you'.

That's what I said.

Acknowledgement and request

You are invited please to respond, comment, disagree, as you wish. Please use the response facility below. You are free to make use of the material in this column, provided you acknowledge the Association, and me please, and cite the Association’s website.

Please cite as: Annan R [Column] The loss of diversity in food, new food composition database for traditional West African foods and other items. Website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, March 2011. Obtainable at

The opinions expressed in all contributions to the website of the World Public Health Nutrition Association (the Association) including its journal World Nutrition, are those of their authors. They should not be taken to be the view or policy of the Association, or of any of its affiliated or associated bodies, unless this is explicitly stated.

This column is reviewed by Geoffrey Cannon.

Funders of the Namibia workshop were the North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa), the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Sight & Life, and the Nestlé Foundation. Thanks also, to the resource people who reviewed our proposals and provided guidance for improvements. Special thanks to the African Nutrition Leadership Programme, who have seen the need to build enough capacity in Africa in order to address our own issues, through grants for nutrition research and interventions. This is crucial to promoting sustainable health and nutrition well-being, and making our continent strong.

2011 March blog: Reggie Annan

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