Student research eyes probiotic food access

Non-dairy alternatives for the creation of a life-sustaining probiotic yogurt may offer a new affordable option to African communities that have come to depend on the product, all thanks to the work of a group of seven student researchers.

Since 2004, Western Heads East has been a university-led grassroots program focused on health and nutrition in east Africa. At the heart of the program is the empowerment of women – known locally as ‘yogurt mamas’ – who establish community kitchens that produce a special probiotic yogurt that makes a difference both economically and physically in the communities.

Since the start, student interns representing all faculties have travelled to Africa to work with local communities, industries, institutions and governments to run the program based on the probiotic research of Microbiology and Immunology professor Gregor Reid and Brescia University College professor Sharareh Hekmat.

This summer, the student researchers noticed a consistent challenge among yogurt kitchens in Kenya and Tanzania. Without a formally regulated milk market and milk collection centres, quality milk can be difficult to find at affordable prices, especially in times of drought. That meant some yogurt kitchens would not be able to generate enough revenue to sustain themselves or that some people would be priced out of nutritious food.

In order to address the low milk supply, Hekmat and the seven students explored the probiotic potential of two new sources – fruit juices and millet. They hoped that alternative forms of probiotic would alleviate the need to rely on dairy, thus offering the mamas a more affordable option.

With financial support from the Africa Institute and Brescia, the students conducted a research study to determine the acceptability of these non-dairy probiotic foods among local university students and community members in two cities – Mwanza, Tanzania and Juja, Kenya.

“This study was the first of its kind conducted by a group of undergraduate students traversing across continents to help problem-solve a major challenge within the probiotic yogurt movement,” said Hekmat, who served as home country supervisor for the study. “I am excited to see the outcomes of all their hard work.”

Special to Western NewsIn order to address the low milk supply, Brescia University College professor Sharareh Hekmat and seven Western Heads East students explored the probiotic potential of two new sources – fruit juices and millet.

With the input of two local supervisors in East Africa – Dr. Arnold Onyango from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Maimuna Kanyamala, Director of Mikono Yetu Centre for Creativity and Innovation – early findings showed that producing probiotic fruit juices and millet porridge did offer more accessible and affordable alternatives of probiotics.

Additionally, the product is finding early acceptance by consumers, explained Toby Le, Research Coordinator of the study.

During their internship, the student researchers created training materials on probiotic juice production and provided training to 10 women’s groups on probiotic fruit juices and millet porridge.

Once findings are complete, all involved hope to expand product lines for kitchens in Tanzania and Kenya, as well as share the results with University of Rwanda that is just beginning a Fiti Production and Traning Centre on Campus.

Le continued, “With this initiative, I want my peers to understand that science can be more than just research discoveries. Science can also be a form of empowerment by providing real-world solutions that are accessible and practical for vulnerable populations.”

The Western Heads East interns involved in this study are Iman Ahmed, Yaoshen Fang, Nareesa Karmali, Toby Le, Wenjing Liu, Megha Shetty and Kathy Yu.