A two-year study, carried out by researchers from Canada and Burkino Faso, found a clear increase in vitamin A levels among mothers and children that had consumed red palm oil either directly or through breast feeding.
More than 250 million children under the age of five around the world are at risk of vitamin A deficiency. Deficiency in this vitamin is said to be the leading avoidable cause of blindness, and it also leads to fatal disease among young children.
The researchers set up a pilot project to promote unrefined red palm oil in a region of Burkina Faso where it is not traditionally consumed.
The oil, known to be rich in the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene, is widely used in another region of Burkina Faso, situated in the south west of the country. It is extracted from the Elaeis guineensis palm.
The oils was transported and sold as a dietary supplement on study locations in 10 villages and an urban area in east-central Burkina Faso, targeting approximately 10,000 women and children aged under five years old.
The study was designed to be realistic : women were informed of the benefits of the oil but they were required to purchase the product themselves. Researchers measured retinol in blood plasma at the beginning and end of the study on a random sample of 210 mother and child pairs, selected from seven out of the 11 pilot sites.
After 24 months, red palm oil was reportedly consumed by nearly 45 per cent of mothers and children in the previous week. The number of women and children with a retinol level below the recommended threshold (0,70 µmol/l) dropped from 62 to 30 per cent for women and from 84.5 to 67 per cent among children. Given that the oil was only available through this project, the results can be attributed to the product, say the researchers.
They add that half of the women involved in the project changed their consumption patterns intentionally adding this oil to their diets. This underlines the ease with which such a food could be added to the diet in the long-term and also its potential for commercial distribution.
The palm oil could also be integrated in national programmes against vitamin A deficiency in Burkina Faso and extended to other areas in the Sahel region of north central Africa, south of the Sahara desert.
Further studies on use of the oil in meals served in schools are underway. Researchers will also investigate other benefits from the commercialisation of palm oil outside the project's designated area, such as for creation of jobs, particularly for women.
The results are reported in Public Health Nutrition, 6 (8), 733-742.