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A biscuit to beat malnutrition

30/05/2014. Biscuits that were developed by University of Pretoria students meant to feed the hungry in South Africa. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

30/05/2014. Biscuits that were developed by University of Pretoria students meant to feed the hungry in South Africa. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Jun 2, 2014


Pretoria - These are not the biscuits your grandmother used to bake. These biscuits are high in protein and antioxidants, they are gluten-free and rich in dietary fibre, are inexpensive to make and can turn the unemployed into entrepreneurs.

They are tasty too.

Food science and nutrition graduates, along with Professor John Taylor of the University of Pretoria (UP), have spent the better part of 10 years developing a healthy alternative to the average, normally unhealthy, snack.

Over the years, several graduates students from various African countries have worked on the project. What they have come up with is a sorghum and cowpeas biscuit that is more nutritious than the snacks people wolf down at their desks.

“These biscuits can go a long way to combat protein-energy malnutrition,” Taylor said.

Taylor, who has been working with sorghum since 1979, said at least 20 percent of South Africans were undernourished and protein-energy malnutrition was more common than thought.

Protein-energy malnutrition happens when people – especially children – do not get enough energy from their food and the little protein they ingest is used for energy.

Taylor and his team worked out that they could use sorghum, an indigenous grain, and cowpeas, a legume, to develop a biscuit that would nourish people and could be a means of earning an income.

It could even be incorporated into the government’s school feeding scheme.

Instead of eating unhealthy snacks bought from vendors outside the school gates, children could snack on these biscuits.

Because sub-Saharan Africa is the most food-insecure region in the world – and it is expected the population of these countries will double by 2050 – there is a need to develop and support agricultural activities in these countries.

Cowpeas and sorghum are indigenous to Africa and easier to grow than wheat. They are also resistant to drought.

“South Africa is running out of water and grains under irrigation will not be an option in future. We cannot use drinking water for grains because it is not sustainable in the long term,” Taylor said.

The biscuits were simple and inexpensive to make and in a country where 30 percent to 40 percent of people were unemployed they could be a source of income.

“Normally vendors sell perishables such as fruit or vegetables. If they don’t sell them today, it will be rotten and not fit to eat by tomorrow. But the biscuits can be sold today, tomorrow or in a few weeks.”

Because the biscuits contain only about three percent water – as opposed to bread, which is 40 percent water – they are “shelf-stable” and don’t perish as quickly as other snacks. Because of the low percentage of moisture, the biscuits are considered nutrient-dense. They also digest slowly, keeping people satisfied for longer.

“From a nutritional point of view this is a good product.”

The biscuits are ready-to-eat and do not require cooking or other effort once baked and packaged.

It was not easy to develop the biscuits. “We had to start by figuring out if we could even use sorghum to make biscuits,” he said.

The gluten in wheat holds baked goods together. Because sorghum contains no gluten, it was a technical challenge to develop a working recipe.

Taylor conceded the first batch wasn’t very good and the biscuits were crumbly.

They also had to work on the protein content, so they added soya.

“The biscuits turned out to be less crumbly,” Taylor said.

Then Rwandan student Pam Dovi explored the possibility of using cowpeas instead of soya. “This was the technical breakthrough,” said Taylor.

The biscuits were tested in Mamelodi, where people evaluated the biscuits in terms of taste, appearance and texture.

The biscuits were compared with conventional commercial biscuits, for example shortbread.

“People found the biscuit very acceptable,” Taylor said.

The biscuits were also evaluated in terms of their ability to generate an income.

Taylor and his team determined one could earn the equivalent of a domestic worker’s salary by making and selling the biscuits.

Recently, the university and the University of Limpopo started training people to make the biscuits.

This is part of a bigger agricultural project sponsored by the Howard G Buffet Foundation through the Norman Borlaug Institute.

Nokuthula Vilakati, a PhD candidate in nutrition, focuses on educating people about the nutritional value of the biscuits and sorghum.

Since March, 11 people have been trained, but Taylor wants to see this project develop into something bigger.

The team have developed a step-by-step manual with pictures explaining how to make the biscuits.

Nosihle Dladla, a Master’s degree student, said the biscuits had “a lot of potential throughout Africa” and because children were curious, they would try the biscuits. As part of her research she is developing other sorghum snacks such as chips.

PhD candidate Adeoluwa Adetunji from Nigeria is developing sorghum beverages, similar to the fermented, non-alcoholic drink known as mageu or amahewu.

Taylor believes the biscuit “offers the best of both worlds” by combining traditional grains and legumes with modern methods of baking and presentation.

“By 2030, half of Africans will live in cities and this will profoundly change the way people eat,” he said.

Instead of half a loaf of bread and a soft drink, people could enjoy a biscuit that added value to their diet. Three biscuits made with sorghum and soya would provide a child with 50 percent of its daily high quality protein requirements.



Sorghum and cowpeas biscuits (makes 20 15g biscuits)

1 ¼ cup finely milled sorghum flour

¾ cup finely milled cowpeas flour

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup sunflower oil

2 teaspoons vanilla essence

100ml water.



Turn on the oven to 190ºC.

Combine the sorghum and cowpea flour in a mixing bowl.

Add the sugar and baking powder.

Add the sunflower oil and vanilla essence.

Add the water.

Mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon and shape the dough into a ball by hand.

Sprinkle a baking tray with sorghum flour.

Roll out the dough with a rolling pin.

Press the dough flat on the baking tray (as thick as a biscuit) and cut it into the desired shapes.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the bottom of the biscuits is dry.

Pretoria News

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