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Nutritional values

Nutritional values

The agenda for nutritional research in Africa should be led by African scientists, says Patrick Kolsteren, coordinator of the European Union 'Sunray' project.

Nutritional valuesThe lead authors of 40% of the peer-reviewed articles devoted to issues related to nutrition in Africa are from the United States or Europe, not Africa. That is one of the key findings of a recent survey conducted as part of European Union project 'Sunray: Sustainable Nutrition Research for Africa in the Years to Come'. The survey identified some 11,000 articles on nutrition in Africa published between 2000 and 2011.

A series of interviews conducted as part of the same project showed that the vast majority of African researchers currently examining nutritional issues – nearly 95% – do not believe their studies address issues of critical concern to their societies.

"These findings, if reaffirmed by additional surveys and interviews, suggest that nutritional research begs for significant reforms", says Patrick Kolsteren, who is the head of the nutrition and child health unit of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, and coordinator of the Sunray project. TWAS was recently asked to participate in the Sunray steering group meeting to explore potential avenues of collaboration. The project consists of a consortium four African and five European institutions.

The research agenda for nutrition in Africa has been largely driven by outside donors. "As a result," Kolsteren says, "African researchers have largely pursued research questions that are not of their own making."

Research on nutrition in Africa, he also notes, is dominated by 'descriptive' studies. "The majority of scientific articles – some 60% according to our surveys – focus exclusively on the nature of the problem, answering such questions as how many people are affected, the demographic profile of those who are, and the cost of the problem to society", says Kolsteren. The research framework has been largely the same whether the issue is malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency or rising levels of obesity.

"Such information is undoubtedly important", Kolsteren notes. "But the findings often shed light on questions to which we already know the answer. It's no secret, for example, that children living in single-family, low-income households and low-education households are more susceptible to malnutrition and other health-related problems. We don't need additional studies to tell us that."

The more important issue, according to Kolsteren, is which interventions work and which don't. "These are the kind of studies", he says, "that we don't have enough of." In fact, the initial survey conduced by Sunray shows that only 5% of the research articles published in peer-reviewed journals have been designed to assess the impact of interventions.

"Policy-makers need evidence-based information to enact effective policies," says Kolsteren. By concentrating on descriptive studies and devoting so little time and effort to assessing the impact of interventions, "researchers have shed important light on the nature of the problems we face, but they have done little to help us determine what should done."

The Sunray project, which began this spring and will continue through 2012, will seek to lay the groundwork for reforming the nutritional research agenda in Africa. "The goal", says Kolsteren "is to develop a new research agenda that we hope will help guide decision-makers in Africa as they devise strategies for addressing the critical nutritional needs of their citizens."

For additional information about Sunray, see