When people think of Africa, they imagine a place of brilliant colors. But while that may be true of Africa’s artistic palette, the same can’t be said for its culinary palate. In many African nations, cuisine is dominated by a bland assortment of pasty white foods, such as potatoes, rice and white maize.
“I went to Zambia for a week, and all I ate was white food,” says Sherry Tanumihardjo, a CALS professor of nutritional sciences. “It was utterly bizarre.”
But Tanumihardjo’s concern is more than aesthetic. In Africa and Asia, more than 140 million children don’t get enough vitamin A, a dangerous situation that can lead to blindness or even death. Tanumihardjo, who has conducted research on preventing vitamin A deficiency around the world, says that orange-hued foods like carrots and sweet potatoes—which derive their color from beta carotene, a compound that turns into vitamin A in the body—would give African diets a healthier dash of color. “If we could get people to start changing their dietary habits—switching from white (vegetables) to orange—it would have a huge impact on their vitamin A status,” she says.
To that end, Tanumihardjo has been working with a number of international partners to promote and assess the effectiveness of eating orange. In one study, funded by the International Potato Center, a group of South African school children were fed orange sweet potatoes five days per week for five months at school, while another group received white sweet potatoes. Tanumihardjo designed a special test to monitor the students’ vitamin A levels, which improved among students who ate the orange potatoes, while levels in the white-sweet-potato group declined.
Now, several countries are taking steps to put more color into their food crops. “In Mozambique, they started introducing (orange sweet potato) vines at the community level, and they were able to change community vitamin A status. And the same thing is happening in Uganda. These potatoes are starting to show up at the supermarkets, and people are starting to make better choices,” says Tanumihardjo. “So there has been what I would call a success story for orange sweet potatoes in Africa.”