How much of the micronutrients remain available to nourish the human body in a serving of cassava, rice, or beans, maize or sweet potato? How much certain anti-nutrients impede body’s absorption of micronutrient from maize or sweet potato? How much of the micronutrients that improve growth and development can be absorbed by the body from the food we eat?

These are the kinds of questions asked by scientists in CIAT’s nutritional quality laboratory (NQL) that is aiding the development of biofortified varieties of cassava, rice, beans, maize, and sweet potatoes. These crops have been bred to contain higher levels of iron, zinc or carotenoids – nutrients often lacking in the diets of low-income families in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Nutritional analysis is at the front end of developing nutritious crops to fight against hidden hunger–a deficiency of important vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy body.

In partnership with HarvestPlus and CIAT, the recently-re-vamped NQL has invested in new equipment, which is helping the team analyze iron, zinc and carotenoids in crops in a matter of minutes. This previously took a full day.

“For me, 2016 is going to be an important year for the NQL. Not only will we improve the analysis and quality assurance of methods that we are currently using for zinc, iron and carotenoids, but we will also look into new quick methods for screening.

In addition, we want to establish the method for analysis of phytates, anti-nutrients that prevent the absorption of micronutrients from food. Also, we are developing a method to analyze tryptophan and lysine, two beneficial amino acids in abundance in certain types of maize.”

Elise Talsma

Research Nutritionist, who leads the NQL

Nutritionists and Breeders

Since creation of the NQL in 2008, with the support of the Monsanto Foundation and the leadership of Helena Pachón (AgroSalud), it has developed, and continues to refine, the parameters and analysis for analyzing the nutritional quality of staple crops. The results are a vital source of information for crop breeders. So far, the laboratory has been particularly helpful to breeders of biofortified cassava, rice, beans, maize, and sweet potato.

The laboratory analyses carotenoids in the case of cassava and sweet potatoes, and iron and zinc in the case of beans and rice. In addition they can analyze the bio-accessibility of iron and zinc in crops– how much of each is released from the food and is accessible for absorption by the body. The team can also determine types of sugars, acids, antioxidants, and anti-nutrients in the food. The NQL is also undertaking “retention studies” in which they analyze how much of a crop’s micronutrient content is lost from harvest to food preparation, according to different recipes from various countries.

“We are committed to generating reliable and high quality results quickly to help, breeders and other researchers.”

Luis Fernando Londoño

Coordinator of the NQL

Gelver Patiño, Elise Talsman, Luis Londoño, Sonia Gallego, and Juan Camilo Orozco (Abscent from the picture: Angélica Jaramillo).

NQL team: Gelver Patiño, Elise Talsma, Luis Fernando Londoño, Sonia Gallego, and Juan Camilo Orozco
(Absent from the picture: Angélica Jaramillo).

Hi-tech equipment and the know-how

The quick turnaround of results is important and the NQL laboratory has two hi-tech pieces of equipment that enable it to do this. For example, with the Near Infrared Analyzer (NIR), it only takes two minutes for each sample of cassava to be analyzed. This made it possible to process more than 3,400 cassava samples in 2015 alone.

With new X-ray equipment, it takes only six minutes to analyze iron and zinc in a sample of beans, and three minutes to analyze zinc in rice. This allowed NQL scientists to process around 7,000 samples of bean and 6000 of rice in 2015.  In total that year, they were able to analyze 17,500 samples – almost twice the volume processed in 2010.

The NQL has also installed special yellow lights in one of the analysis rooms to reduce degradation of carotenoids during extraction from cassava, sweet potatoes and maize, thus ensuring a high standard of analysis.

The NQL is not just simply concerned with analyzing samples and obtaining fast, reliable results. The NQL wants to share its knowledge widely, and train new scientists on the methods they are using. In 2015 alone, nearly 300 people visited the laboratory to learn more about the various types of analysis.

Also students of biology, nutrition, chemistry, agricultural and agronomic engineering, and food science, mainly from Colombia’s National University, University of Valle, University of Southern Colombia, Amazonia, and some from foreign countries visited the laboratory and received training on the methods.

“It’s been an enriching experience in every sense. After a year and a half of work, I have learnt just how important nutritional analysis is; I have had also a great opportunity to work with the Laboratory equipment, and developed my thesis on bio-availability of zinc in rice. Today, I am about to reach my degree in Chemistry. This is all a result of the collaborative, team spirit that defines this laboratory.”

Juan Camilo Orozco

Technician of the NQL

*Pictures taken by Neil Palmer.

Get involved: the next big idea

The NLQ is looking to expand its research team and increase its collaboration with other researchers in its mission to reach zero hunger. For example with additional funding, NQL researchers would be able to work on an innovative project in Haiti to analyze carotenoids in cassava, and iron and zinc in beans, where the crops are being tested for suitability to local conditions as part of an IFAD-funded project. The NQL has quick, portable methods to assess cassava – beyond color – to be sure of the nutritional quality, and by grinding beans into a flour, they can easily be transported and analyzed at CIAT headquarters.

Number of analyzed samples during 2015

Cassava

Rice

Bean

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