Let's be Mindful of What we Eat

“With recent increase in chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and hypertension, providing safe food for Ghanaians should be our priority”. A Professor of Food Science at the Department of Vocational and Technical Education (VOTEC), University of Cape Coast, Prof. Sarah Darkwa notes that “whether we like it or not, we have come to a point in the history of our beloved country Ghana, where diseases that we heard of from well developed countries in the past have become prevalent and the cause of death in our country today. Diseases such as cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases among others are on the rise in Ghana. Looking at the economic burden that these diseases bring upon individuals and the government, it is time that each and every one of us joins in the fight to reduce this burden and enjoy good health and long life”, she advised. The Food Scientist made this revelation when she delivered her inaugural lecture on the topic: “Food Science; A sweet Killer of Nutritional Well-Being” at the University of Cape Coast to bring out the fact that although food is a basic need of humans, it could provide health and likewise diseases. It is important therefore to note that, whatever we take in as food, be it in small quantities such as spices and condiments or in large quantities, we need to ensure that it promotes health, thus “sweet” and not make us sick thus a “killer”. The Food Scientist explaining what food does to us, said: “the food we eat provides our bodies with the information and materials they need to function properly. “Imagine what happens when wrong information and materials are given to our bodies because we ate the wrong food. Our bodies definitely will not function properly and will be at risk for the development of diseases and unhealthy conditions thus making food a sweet killer of nutritional well-being”, she explained. Touching on the use of artificial spices in the preparation of food in recent times, Prof. Darkwa indicated that these spices add monosodium glutamate(MSG), high sodium chloride, low amounts of anti-caking agents such as ferrocyanide and silicon aluminates to our foods. She therefore, wondered whether when our grandmothers and mothers pass on, they take along with them the spices (prekese, dawadawa and onion) they cooked with when some of us were growing up. “This generation and that of our children have shifted completely from using the natural spices our mothers used to all kinds of artificial spices and condiments that in our minds make our food “sweet” but in reality, behind the sweetness, they kill us slowly”. Prof. Darkwa noted that MSG is associated with muscle tightness, headaches, general weakness while high Sodium Chloride is also associated with high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases. Prof. Darkwa noted that although these spices and condiments were usually used in small quantities, the frequency with which they were used to cook leads to an accumulation of the bad contents in our bodies. “Remember that once wrong food ingredients enter your body, the wrong instructions start and the product ends in diseases”. According the lecturer, to make these foods tasty and attractive for consumers, reasonable amounts of artificial seasonings are used. Enjoying eating these foods is “sweet” but the after effect is a “killer”. She advocated for the use our local spices saying, “Let’s think about it, would we not prefer processing our own meals with known local spices and meat rather than artificial seasonings and condiments which most often we cannot be certain of what they contain. Not to scare you, there have been several instances where all kinds of information on imported meat and meat products circulate on social media which is really scary and puts consumers of these products at risk. Although most of these sources cannot be authenticated, it is still worth taking precaution”. Extolling the benefits of selected local spices and condiments, she said, Dawadawa contained Protein, Natural fats, Vitamins and Minerals while Prekese has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant which help with heart disease prevention and very good wound healing properties. She told the audience that onion assists in regulating blood sugar, reduces inflammation, heals infections and lowers the production of bad cholesterol (LDL). It also has quercetin which helps prevent cancer. Prof. Darkwa whose lecture also touched on Non-Alcoholic Drinks (NAD), said her research has shown that these drinks may have high antioxidants and vitamins especially vitamin C but on the contrary, the sugars, calories and sometimes caffeine that these sweet drinks provide our bodies tend to be detrimental to our bodies and slowly kill us thus labelling them as “sweet killers”.  She averred that, mean sugars of these drinks were higher than the recommended standard (1% - 12%) reported by Kregiel (2005) for sugars in soft drinks or non-alcoholic drinks.  “Mean sugars in percentages for the carbonated malt drinks, ranged from 19.20% - 23.18%, for concentrated fruit juices preserved exclusively by physical means ranged from 6.983% - 30.96%; fresh fruit juices with no physical or chemical preservatives ranged from 0.03% - 7.00% and were the ones with the least concentration of sugars; squashes and cordials preserved by physical means ranged from 25.77%- 40.71%and were the ones with the highest concentration of sugars”, She stated. What is however worrying is the fact that the Ghana Standard Authority unfortunately does not have standards regarding these drinks in the country. “Unfortunately, the Ghana Standard Authority could not provide us with any standards for the mean sugar and vitamin C concentration for these drinks but I dare to say they may not exist”, she noted.   For those who cannot abstain from taking these drinks, she advised that: “once again, remember that very small quantities, taken less often may be the way to go if you find it difficult staying away from them, but there will be greater consequences if it is taken more often and in large quantities”. Elucidating on the popular drink in Ghana, Bissap, prepared from the flower/calyx of Hibiscus sabdariffa, which is served at almost all occasions, she said, it is well known for its antioxidant, anti-diabetic, antibacterial, antihypertensive, lipid lowering and antimicrobial properties. With these properties, Prof. Darkwa said it is used as an antiseptic, aphrodisiac, diuretic, laxative and sedative. Findings from the assessment of chemical contaminants in corn dough from 5 selected corn wet milling plants according to Prof. Darkwa, revealed that most of the grinding plates used at these mills were locally made, old due to wear and tear of grinding plates which led to leaching of metals. Again, Petroleum based lubricants were applied with dirty hands and sometimes leaked into the milled corn.   “Mean levels of iron (30.95mg/kg), zinc (7.17mg/kg) and grease (1.16mg/kg) were above standards provided by Codex Alimentarius Commission (2011) & EFSA (2012) which is as zero”, said the Professor of Food Science.   She said it has been reported that considerable nutrient losses take place during processing steps such as, steeping, milling and sieving of corn. Continuing her findings, she mentioned that, the study showed that the different fermentation periods increased the nutritional quality of the dough, showing an increase in protein, fat, fibre and CHO of the corn dough but a reduction in ash content. However, she noted that by the third day of fermentation, the dough lost some of the nutrients and regained them by the fifth day. These changes she said could be attributed to the action of microorganisms during the fermentation. “In spite of the losses in some nutritional components, the Etew, was found to have appreciable nutritional quality which clearly indicates that fermentation improves the nutritional quality of foods”. Turning to the popular delicacy, Fufu, the researcher, said findings from the study showed that, three fufu combinations had remarkably low Glycemic index. (That is the relative ranking of how fast or slow a carbohydrate food is converted to glucose after ingestion). Cassava Yam fufu had the least (30) followed by Cassava Cocoyam fufu (39) and Cassava plantain fufu (50). She however admonished fufu lovers not be too excited because large portion sizes taken at a serving however may nullify the importance of the low glycemic index because of the accumulative effect it will have on blood glucose levels. She revealed that the portion size of fufu as recommended by the Ministry of Health: Ghana (2009), is 211grams which contains 76g of carbohydrate.   Prof. Darkwa cautioned her audience to be mindful of what they take in as food or drink by quoting from Ann Wigmore, “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison”. Concluding, Prof. Darkwa intimated that “as individuals and as a nation, we need to be good custodians of our bodies to enjoy good and healthy lives. Whatever we take in as food be it small or large, we need to ensure that it will promote good health in our bodies”.