On the growing concern about gluten intolerance among Nigerians vs the interest of local farmers and processors; Don’t miss the point

Posted by Dola Adeboye

On June 26, 2019

Supporting the interest of local farmers and processors should not be done at the detriment of sound science. This is the view of an erudite Professor of Food Science and Chairman Body of Fellow of Nigerian Institute of Food Science, Prof. O. B Ogunmoyela.  

“The ongoing social media campaign against the consumption of wheat “amala” is a very serious misapplication of scientific information which can be classified as an unfair trade campaign, perhaps because we have found an unusual way of consuming wheat in Nigeria which aligns with our food culture and which may not be pleasing to the various manufacturers of bakery ingredients who have invested heavily and have to sell their bread additives. I do not have the statistics but as one of those who contributed to the “accidental discovery” of the acceptance of this product in our diet in Nigeria whilst still in the industry, I have been following with keen interest, the gradual increase of market share of wheat consumed as amala since the advent of whole wheat amala in our diet in Nigeria.

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. But 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 there campaign against whole-wheat amala alone and no campaign against the consumption of bread, cakes and biscuits in this same country then? Ask yourself!

While it is true that wheat contains gluten which is not found in cassava, yams, rice and coco yams which are 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. So why the noise? The campaign against wheat consumption fails to recognize that bread made from wheat has become a household food in Nigeria for many decades. If wheat is dangerous, why is bread 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 intervention, Fortification, has 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 clamoring for is that wheat amala must be mandatorily fortified like other wheat flours.

Although 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 which science has been successfully addressing especially in the last three decades through initiatives such as breeding and genetics, resulting in recent efforts at Bio-Fortification to improve its content of Vitamin A, the deficiency of which is known to cause blindness, apart from the fact that high consumption of cassava in various forms is also responsible for many non-communicable diseases such as obesity like many other starchy foods.

It is therefore sheer exploitation of ignorance to say that bread is “safe” but whole wheat is dangerous given the fact that it contains more protein than any of our staple starchy foods.

What I always advise as a Food Scientist is to avoid any food that you as the consumer may be intolerant to and ensure dietary diversity to ensure maximum benefit from the various nutrients! It is 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 because of gluten intolerance in less than one person per 2000 in the population, or even while we are not condemning the consumption of bread which is also from wheat, perhaps for trade and political gains rather than overall public interest? In fact why are we promoting whole meal bread as being more nutritious than white bread when it is the same flour that is used to make whole wheat amala which is being condemned? We have exploited the ignorance of our people enough and the time has come to stop this unhealthy campaign in the social media against the consumption of wheat and 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 public health challenges such as micronutrient deficiencies as listed before.

This type of underground campaign is sponsored and unfair to the public and should therefore be ignored. However, the time has come for government to take public enlightenment on food and nutrition 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, wheat in the forms of Amal’s, garri, lafun, etc but always in moderate forms. The key to our safety is moderation at all times. The information being put out about wheat Amala is definitely misleading, unfair and tilted to favour certain interests. This must not be allowed to continue. Questions are welcome, please.

Olugbenga Ben Ogunmoyela, PhD, FNIFST, FIPAN, CChem.

Professor of Food Science and Technology & Fortification Expert

Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology,

Bells University of Technology,

Idiroko Road, Ota, Ogun State