NIFST Position on the Suspected Unfair Trade Campaign Against Some Wheat Staple Products Manufactured in Nigeria

Posted by Dola Adeboye

On April 23, 2020

The Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology (NIFST) is the Professional Body of Food Scientists and Technologists and Allied Professionals in Nigeria. It was established in 1976 as a non-profit organization and has grown to over 7,000 active members working in the food manufacturing sector, higher education and research institutions, government ministries, departments and agencies. The Profession of Food Science & Technology in Nigeria became chartered with the establishment of the Nigerian Council of Food Science & Technology (NCFST) Act Cap A2 LFN of 15th October 2019 signed into law by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari. This law mandates the NCFST to define and uphold professional standards of competence, integrity and ethical behaviour among food practitioners in line with best global practices; and to ensure that the critical control areas of our food supply chain are handled in the best interests of the well-being of our people. The Professional body, NIFST, is a major stakeholder in this mandate.
We are aware of the recent viral circulation of a video clip on a brand of Semolina (Golden Penny Semovita), a wheat-based product. As food professionals, we need to clear the air and moderate the misleading, uninformed and corrupt opinions and claims expressed in the video from two perspectives, namely, the facts and motives.

The Facts about Semolina:

1. Semolina is a whitish, fine gritty product of Wheat milling. It is a mixture of protein (mainly gluten), starch (about 25% in weight), and some lipids all of which are naturally present in the wheat endosperm. During wheat milling, the hull and the germ (embryo) are separated from endosperm (the grain food reserve) which is milled into Semolina.

2. Gluten is the substance in the wheat that makes it the choicest grain for baking flour. It is made up of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which combine to form the natural elastic and extensible material, as depicted accurately in the video. It should be known that it is essentially a protein, fried and eaten in some Asian countries so it should be seen as conferring some level of nourishment to the consumer, apart from the consistency it gives to the product.

3. This protein, known as gluten, is what gives baked products like our typical pan bread and some cakes the ability to puff by holding the gas produced from the fermentation reaction in the dough, thereby giving the product a desirable texture and volume. The same gluten is what gives semolina (or semovita) the desirable “drawy” (viscoelastic) and better mouldability when semovita/semolina is prepared into dough meals or what we popularly refer to as “swallow”. Therefore, gluten is not natural rubber or plastic as claimed in the video.

4. The Golden Penny Semovita is a brand of semolina produced locally by the Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc. It is not an imported brand of semolina. Therefore, there could have not been any involvement of non-Nigerians in its manufacture as claimed except staff of the company, unless it was adulterated after manufacture and released into the trade within the country.

5. The Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc is a corporate member of our Professional body, NIFST. The Institute wants to assure the general public of our confidence in the track record of the company in maintaining a robust Quality Control and Assurance System operated in the manufacture of their various products.

6. In the flour milling industry, a routine quality check conducted is to test for the quantity and quality of gluten using different methods. The washing procedure exemplified closely by the campaigner in the video is the crude procedure followed to remove the starch and water soluble constituents in the semolina, leaving behind what is known as the “wet gluten” which is rubbery in texture. It has a high degree of elasticity, for which reason it behaves more or less like ‘rubber’.

What Could Be The Motive?

1. The video is probably being spread to show that the product contains what the presenter calls rubber (or plastic) purportedly added by some non-Nigerians as adulterant.

2. It is also clear that the video campaigner wants viewers (or consumers) to shift attention to patronizing locally produced and indigenous flours and to avoid imported food products.

As a Professional body, it should be clear that the motive behind this official reaction to the video clip is not to protect or promote any particular brand of product but to put the facts straight and to correct any deliberate or inadvertent public misinformation and alarm, as this is not the first time. We therefore recognize the need for increased public education and enlightenment to avoid ignorant members of the public from misleading consumers as this campaigner has done.

We had once noted a similar social media campaign against the consumption of wheat “amala”, which was a very serious misapplication of scientific information, and which should be classified as an unfair competition and trade campaign. This is unfortunate because in Nigeria, our companies had found an unusual way of consuming wheat which aligns with our food culture and which was not imported. It is possible that this type of innovation rather than being commended, may not have been pleasing to some manufacturers of local flours or food ingredients, who could have invested heavily in other products and were thus seeking ways to compete profitably.

While we do not have the statistics, it would appear that the false alarm and social media campaign raised at the time, had a severe negative impact on the product in the market, and gradually eroded the market share of wheat consumed as “amala” over the last three years. It is the flour milling sector that can confirm the damage that had been done.

There is no doubt that Nigeria because of our population is a huge market, and will continue to be so as it is expected to be the third most populous country in the world by 2050. However, the growing influence of social media must be channeled to enlighten the public in the right way. Wheat taken in the form of bread, cakes, breakfast cereals and biscuits, is the most common food in most developed countries of the world with temperate weather which favors its cultivation.

And there is no campaign against the consumption of wheat in these countries or even in Nigeria where pan bread has been a staple food for more than six decades. So, why is the campaign against whole-wheat “amala” and now semolina, with no such campaign against the consumption of bread, cakes and biscuits in this same country?

The Way Forward:

While it is true as already described above that wheat contains gluten, which is not found in cassava, yams, rice and coco yams, which are our traditional staple foods, bread is also a staple food that has been fully accepted in the country. In fact, only a very small percentage of the world population is known to suffer from gluten-intolerance. In Nigeria, there are not more than one hundred thousand known cases of people suffering from gluten intolerance in a population of about 200 million. And there are several alternative staples available to such group of people.
So, why this noise and ignorant campaign of calumny against wheat semolina or brown flour?

The campaign against wheat consumption also fails to recognize that bread made from wheat has become a household food in Nigeria for many decades. If wheat is dangerous, why is wheat flour for making bread and other flour-based products chosen all over the world as the most preferred staple for fortification to address public health challenges such as Vitamin A and Iron Deficiency, Calcium and Folic acid deficiency among others?

This type of nutrition intervention, known as Fortification, had in fact been found to be the cheapest form of intervention for addressing public health issues all over the world. So what we should be wondering is why wheat flour for “amala” and “semolina” should not be mandatorily fortified like other wheat flours?

It must also be pointed out that while wheat is classified as an allergen-containing food because of those who suffer from gluten intolerance, so also is cow’s milk, white fish, soya bean, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts and many other foods. Even cassava that had been a staple food for centuries is not without its challenges of cyanide poisoning which science has now successfully addressed in the last three decades through plant breeding and genetics. In fact, we must also note the recent efforts at Bio-Fortification to improve the Vitamin A content of cassava, as the deficiency of Vitamin A is known to cause blindness.

It is therefore sheer exploitation of ignorance to say that bread is “safe” but wheat is dangerous given the fact that it contains more protein than any of our staple starchy foods.
What we always advise as Food Scientists, is the need for the consumer to avoid any food that the consumer may be intolerant of and to ensure dietary diversity to ensure maximum benefit from the various nutrients!

It is rather foolish for someone who is allergic to peanuts to say that everyone must avoid peanuts just as it is unfair to campaign against consumption of wheat in the form of semolina or wheat “amala” while we are not condemning the consumption of bread or cakes which are also produced from wheat. Is this for trade and/or political gains rather than the overall public interest?

We believe that the ignorance of our people has been exploited enough. The time has come to stop this unhealthy campaign in the social media against the consumption of wheat and other wheat-based foods which have become part of the staple diet in Nigeria for many decades, and are now being used in our fight against the public health challenges of various micronutrient deficiencies like in other parts of the world. This is even more so now that Nigeria isgradually increasing its own production of wheat, believed to be presently up to 50,000 mt per annum.

NIFST considers these types of underground campaign as suspicious and unfair to the public and therefore condemn such practices, and strongly advocate that they should be ignored. However, the time has also come for government to take public enlightenment on food and nutrition issues more seriously as part of our primary health concerns rather than focusing only the curative solutions which are out of reach of most Nigerians.

For a start, therefore, we must encourage diversity through consumption of “swallows” from cassava, yam, and wheat in the forms of amala, gari, lafun, etc. but always in moderate forms and eaten with soups or stews and with large doses of green leafy vegetables included. The key to our safety is moderation at all times and dietary diversity.

NIFST is particularly happy that some citizens care to study or interact more with what they eat. We want to encourage more of such public scrutiny that can alert the public of any possible future calamity.

The attention of experts must however always be called to any unclear issues in order not to cause unnecessary public fear and anxiety. NIFST also condemns any attempt to stereotype the nationals of any country as agents of food adulteration. Food Safety is an international issue which we must collectively fight in the interest of global food security.

Draft Release of the Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology
April 24, 2020

Prepared By an Ad-hoc Committee comprising:

Prof Olugbenga Ogunmoyela, Fellow – Chairman
Dr Augustine Okoruwa – Fellow
Engr Duro Kuteyi – Industrialist; Member
Prof Taofeek Shittu – Editor-in-Chief & Secretary