“Whole grains” are all the components of the cereal grain, i.e. the Endosperm, plus the Bran (the outer layers of the grain, technically called the pericarp) and the Germ (also known as the embryo)

Whole-grain meal and flour consist of the endosperm, bran and germ in exactly the same proportions as present in the intact grain. This is unlike refined meal and flour products such as sifted maize meal and maize flour where a proportion of the bran and germ has been removed, which increases the relative proportion of endosperm.

Whole-grain foods were traditionally widely consumed in Africa and around the world until large-scale industrial milling was developed.  Industrial milling greatly reduced the cost of producing refined meals and flours, which resulted in a great increase in consumption of refined grain food products such as very white ugali, white bread and white rice.

Over the past 15 years, however, there has been ever increasing interest in whole-grain foods.  This is as result of recent indisputable scientific evidence that regular consumption of whole-grain foods contributes to prevention of the very common diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, coronary and cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.  These health benefits are primarily due to the much higher dietary fibre content of whole-grain foods

Additionally, whole-grain foods contain substantially higher amounts of essential nutrients than refined-grain foods, most notably: B-vitamins, Vitamin E, Iron, Zinc and other minerals, High quality proteins, Essential fats and Dietary fibre – See Figure 1.  Most if not all of these nutrients are deficient in the diets of at-risk groups in Africa, especially children and women of childbearing age.

Furthermore, because the milling extraction rate for whole-grain meal and flour from cleaned grain is nearly 100%, the yield of meal and flour per ton is much higher than with refined milling products, normally at least 20% higher.  Also, the cost of their production can be somewhat less that of the equivalent refined milling products where the bran and germ by-products are generally sold at a much lower price than the meal and flour.  In practice, the cost is normally more or less the same as other issues have to be given more attention in whole-grain milling.

A high proportion of children and women of childbearing age in Africa are very at-risk of diseases caused by insufficient micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in their diets, for example night-blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency and anaemia caused by insufficient iron.  In addition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are in-part responsible for other very common childhood diseases such as diarrhoea and also cause irreversible long-term damage to children’s physical and mental development.

A shortage of essential vitamins and minerals in the diet is officially called “micronutrient malnutrition” as opposed to a shortage of nutrients such as starch, protein and fates. Micronutrient malnutrition is commonly called the “Hidden Hunger” as its effect is not immediate as would be the case with insufficient energy in the diet but is slow and insidious.

Over the past 30 years, many studies have shown that vitamin and mineral fortification of staple foodstuffs is highly effective in improving the nutrient status of at-risk groups in developing countries.  As a consequence, food fortification is today the major strategy of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for combatting micronutrient malnutrition.

There are significant health benefits of whole grains because of their much higher contents of several essential vitamins and minerals and other nutrients when compared to refined-grain foods.  Why then is it necessary to fortify whole-grain meal and flour?  Sadly, the fact of the matter is that the diet of many people in Africa is so deficient that even consuming whole-grain foods does not provide them with sufficient vitamins and minerals.  Furthermore, Vitamin A which is one of the most important vitamins is normally not present in grains and hence, it is included as a fortificant.

Fortification is the addition during food manufacture of essential vitamins and minerals to stable foods.  Fortification is normally performed under and according to government regulation and is increasingly becoming compulsory across Africa.

Fortification involves adding vitamins and minerals in their chemical form and blending them in foodstuffs such as maize meal, wheat flour and even sugar.  Typically, several different vitamins and minerals are added, for example Vitamin A, Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 and B12, iron and zinc.  They are added in the form of a pre-mix powder, which is obtained from particular approved suppliers.  These premixes are very inexpensive and only marginally increase the cost of manufacturing the meal/flour. 

Special automated dosing and blending equipment has been developed to ensure that the vitamins and minerals are added at the correct concentration and are uniformly distributed throughout the meal/flour.  The dosing and blending equipment is widely available, reliable, simple to use and is relatively inexpensive.

In some instances, the cost of fortification equipment and of the micronutrient pre-mix may be subsidised by government or NGOs.  However, such subsidy even if it is provided is normally only short-term and it would be very unwise to rely on it.  Rather, millers should use the fact that their products have been fortified for improved nutrition and health as a marketing strategy to promote sales.  In this regard, nutrition and health is one of the three major drivers of consumer food purchase in Africa, together with cost and affordability and taste.