Not all Processed Foods are Unhealthy – Dr. Yaa Klu

Not all Processed Foods are Unhealthy – Dr. Yaa Klu
18 min read

According to the World Health Organization, the world is rapidly urbanizing with significant changes in our living standards, lifestyles, social behaviour, health and eating habits.

 

“For the first time in history, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in an urban area. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in towns and cities.”

Today, we learn how urbanization affects our diet and eating habits, the effects of dietary supplements on our health and malnutrition in children with Food Scientist, Dr. Yaa Klu.

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Food Scientist, Dr. Yaa Klu

Dr. Yaa Asantewaa Kafui Klu was born and raised in Cape Coast, in the Central Region of Ghana. In her own words, she had her secondary school education at “the best high school in Ghana”, Wesley Girls High School, also located in Cape Coast, where she studied Science. She then studied at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. Yaa recently graduated with a PhD in Food Science from the University of Georgia, in the United States.

 

  • You earned a PhD in Food Science. What prompted your interest in this field of study?

“In my third year of the Biochemistry program, I got exceptional interest in the few Food Science related courses I took.  Additionally in my final year, my research was focused on formulating a weaning food for children, and this project further flamed my passion for Food Science.  imageI worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 3 years after college (an experience I enjoyed so much) and when considering graduate school, some people around me felt I should pursue a PharmD with previous knowledge and experience (and also, the fact that a PharmD fetches lots of money whereas Food Science had no future in Ghana), but my interest did not change.  Life is too short to work in a profession just for money minus intense passion.  A girl has got to be able to dance on the job because it’s hard to be a woman, and if a field had no future in Ghana, I believe it takes a few people to build the foundation for that future and why can I not be part?  Coupled with my inherent interest in cooking, I jokingly told myself I would love to study the science of food as I continue to enjoy the art of cooking.  I would say this though, being a Christian with a strong faith in God, I will add that, God ordered my steps to pursue Food Science.  I will tell you this story.  About 3 years ago, I met in the United States, an old neighbor I have not seen in about 18 years. He was pleasantly not surprised I was studying Food Science because according to this man who is about 20 years older than I am, when I was less than 10 years, I mentioned I wanted to walk in the path of the late Dr. Mrs. Esther Ocloo, the Food Industrialist, after I had seen an interview of her on television.  I could not remember saying that because I was very young but I smiled broadly because there was no doubt that, God had ordered my path right from high school into achieving that academic laurel.”

  • Tell us about your achievements/awards, if any.

“I live by the saying, “The true measure of a man lies in how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good” and anytime I do according to that, it is an achievement for me.  I do everything humanely possible to be a form of blessing to anyone I cross paths with in life, especially by ministering to children since my adolescent days and doing lots of volunteer activities.  Concerning academic achievements/awards, I have several of them but I would only mention Peanut Proud Scholarship that I won in 2012; because it was in recognition to my work regarding using peanuts to solve malnutrition problems in the developing world.  That award gives me the “proud kicks”.”

  • What has been the most significant phase of your educational career?

“I would simply say my years in graduate school; I matured in every area of my academic, social and emotional life.  The PhD program is intensely rigorous and no wonder it is called a terminal degree and if one goes through it well, he/she gets the total embodiment of education.  Personally, I feel contrary to what the average person thinks, a doctoral degree, does not make one an expert on a particular field rather, a person is trained to enable him/her find a solution to different problems.  There is no doubt that my days in graduate school form the most significant phase of my education.”

  • It has been realized that when a country industrializes, the transition from a traditional rural diet to one that includes more processed foods occurs quite quickly. What are your thoughts on unhealthful diets linked to urbanization?

“First of all, I must make one important point here. Not all processed foods are unhealthy and not all traditional rural diets are healthier either.  One of the main aims of food processing is to alter food into a form that would preserve longer and make it readily available to the consumer at all times.  There is also a term known as minimal food processing where foods are not fully processed.  For instance, a food processing plant would can peaches. Then, another plant could pit peaches and use a good packaging technology to increase freshness and reduce deterioration (minimal processing).  Both of them are to ensure you and I have peaches in and out of season and that is what the food processor does for us.

If I take raw beef and process it into minced meat so a consumer can use it for several dishes and make it more appealing for younger children, I do not overly change the nutritional value of meat.  I only alter the raw state of the meat for variety purposes; that is what I do for you as a food processor.

Although most processed foods on the shelves have loads of unhealthy fats, sugars and salts, in the industrialized countries there are low fat, low salts, no sugar etc. options.  Therefore, I would say, it is an individual choice on what to consume.  Traditionally, we cook with coconut, palm and palm-kernel oils which are high in saturated fats, we eat “gari”, “tapioca” and “konkonte” (processed cassava) which are high glycemic index foods; so you see, some of our traditional foods are not solely healthier either.

Let me make this clear as well. A lot of our traditional foods are processed and can even undergo further processing. “Kenkey” is a processed corn food product, and in the United States, Ghanaians have found a way of processing it such that, it can last for several weeks on the shelf and still taste fresh when heated.  I am sure the nutrition content of “kenkey” has not changed because someone found a way of storing it longer and maintaining its freshness right?  All I am trying to say is, processing of food does not necessarily have to make it unhealthy and actually the Food Scientist can improve on the nutritional value of a food product through processing.  For example, recent innovations in the world of Food Science include incorporating omega 3 fatty acids to fruit juices to make them healthier functional beverages.  Food processing also comes with food packaging that provides the consumer with nutrition and caloric information to guide the consumer who is health and weight conscious.

Although urbanization is linked to the consumption of loads of processed foods, I do not fully agree that processed foods are necessarily unhealthier. It is a consumer choice and additionally, I presume this question is with regards to high cases of chronic diseases in the urban areas so I would state this.  Most health problems associated with diet (over-nutrition; consumption of excess calories) in the urban centers is strongly linked to lack of physical activity which is absent in the rural area. Take the case of an active sportsman who consumes over 8000 calories daily when in practice. If he refuses to consume that much calories, he puts his life at risk on the field whiles a man of similar BMI who sits in an office chair for 8 hours puts his life at risk by consuming that much calories daily.”

  • Recently, COLARAD, a liquid collagen-based weight loss dietary supplement was introduced into Ghana’s market. Many of such supplements are being patronized by the youth. What do we need to know about the serious dependency of “seemingly harmless” dietary supplements?

“First of all, the claims of most of these weight-loss supplements have not been evaluated by the USFDA or the right regulatory bodies in the countries in which they are manufactured and in several cases, in the industrialized countries, they are not banned from being advertised or sold as long as they have no records of lethal effects.  This makes it difficult for me to tell anyone to indulge in or refrain from.  I would confidently say that once a regulatory body has not evaluated the claims made by such supplements, one is better off avoiding them since the long term effects are not known. However, some of these supplements contain natural but not artificially synthesized ingredients so perhaps a person can wisely use them but not get addicted to them.  

Personally, I believe most of these supplements do not work “magic” but manufacturers are able to hype one benefit of a natural product and twist the consumer’s mind to the fact that their product is making them lose weight.  Firstly, usual instructions on most of these supplements inform consumers not to eat at certain times, and not to eat certain amounts and types of foods.  Do you know exactly what the consumer is doing?  He/she is reducing their caloric intake unknowingly and heading towards weight loss but is being made to believe the supplement is doing that.  Secondly, I just searched something on the internet regarding case of COLARAD and if it is genuine, I just read, a person taking the supplement is not supposed to eat 3 hours before sleeping.  Alright, so supposing I am the type who snacks after dinner and consume about 500 calories from sugary snacks and because I am taking COLARAD I stop, do you know how much calories I would have forfeited in a week?  That would be 3500 calories and it is equivalent to 1 pound of fat.  Ok, another claim by COLARAD is losing weight without losing lean muscles which is no secret.  Collagen is a form of protein and needed in building muscles, thus if a person is consuming it daily, he or she should build more muscles than the person who is not and probably does not consumes enough amino acids needed to build such essential proteins.  Some of these supplements are only harnessing very simple and natural ingredients and making complex claims for the unassuming consumer and in that light, they cannot be harmful. I cannot however vouch for some of them.

I would end by saying that weight gain is basically a caloric issue that is consuming more calories than used by the body.  Once an imbalance is created via proper diet and exercise, weight loss can be achieved slowly.”

  • If you could solve one African problem using your knowledge and skills in Food Science, what would this problem be and how would you solve it?

“Great! Now I can talk about what I am passionate about (my dissertation). I have been working and would always work for the cause of children especially pre-school children because they are the foundation of the next generation. One of the biggest problems in Africa is Diarrhea/Malnutrition amongst pre-school children.  I say Diarrhea and Malnutrition because these two conditions usually co-exist and Diarrhea is technically a combination of nutritional disease with fluid and electrolyte loss.  Additionally, Diarrhea is both a cause and a consequence of malnutrition in pre-school children, creating a vicious cycle.  Infectious Diarrhea is the second highest cause of mortality amongst these kids and takes more lives than Malaria, Measles and AIDS combined. I watched a documentary on Diarrhea in children in a southern African country where in most villages, half of the families have lost a child to diarrhea and the other half has lost more than one child.  As a woman, I wept and could not imagine losing my baby to Diarrhea.

Solution?  As I stated earlier, I have been working on this and will continue to work on it through research.  Hopefully, people in places of authority use our findings in policy/decision making.  

Additionally, I have observed that most times, the problem of malnutrition, although linked to poverty is also linked to ignorance.  Sometimes, people do not have the knowledge to use the little resources they have to provide nutritious foods for their kids.  Thus, right now in my own small way, I educate people on this problem and how to address them with simple solutions.  A classic case of ignorance is this: just last week, my mother who is an educationist was interviewing some school children in Takoradi.  She finds out the children are provided with food in school and guess what?  The food lacks protein and when they ever provide pieces of fish, it is served to those in JHS and the primary school kids are left out.  

Knowledge states that although both groups of children need proteins, the lower primary kids need it most and so in the event of scarcity, they should get the protein. 

Additionally, although animal protein usually provides all the indispensable amino acids, in our part of the world it is affordable to few people.   A good combination of plant proteins from peanuts, soybeans, black eye peas etc. and even from cereals like rice can provide most of these indispensable amino acids.  In a typical case like this, I could be giving consultancy services to institutions that provide food for school children.  I could go on and on about what I can do to help address this problem.  I only pray God gives me the wisdom, resources and places me in a position of authority to implement them and also set up a food processing plant to manufacture affordable and nutritious foods (using locally available raw ingredients) for pre-school children and infants.  

Finally, I am going to be a teacher so as it is said, the tradition goes on, in teaching the younger generation; they will spread the good news and help make Africa, a better place to live.  My solutions do not sound gigantic, I know, but I have learned, I cannot change the whole world so I comfort myself with making small changes with and through the people I come into contact with and…little drops of water makes a mighty ocean.”

  • Why would you encourage anyone to pursue Food Science?

“That question got me smiling. Without food and water, there is nothing called life.  Food Science, contrary to what most average people think is not about cooking food. To simply put it, it entails everything from the farm to the fork and some aspects like Food Safety actually start from the farm.  The Food Scientist is there to ensure you survive on a safe and nutritious diet and he/she is a key person in ensuring food security.  I gave you a peek into my dissertation and you realize an aspect of it is geared towards public health and child nutrition; trying to say, it is a very big branch of science, waiting to be explored by fun people.  It is a very interesting field of study with diverse fields and on a lighter note, for those who like extremely fun things like eating; you can specialize in sensory science :).

Personally, I think the industrialized countries thrive because they have Food Security; without Food Security a nation cannot grow, so for Ghana and other African countries to continually develop, we need more Food Scientists.”