Researchers at Flinders University in South Australia are developing a resistant starch that can be easily incorporated into simple foods such as porridge, biscuits and bread. They believe the substance could maximise digestive efficiency in babies and children, boost their immune systems and reduce stunting.
The resistant starch has been successfully tested on infants in Australia and now researchers are testing small stool samples taken from the nappies of very young infants in a remote African village in conjunction with the University of Malawi.
Project manager Elissa Mortimer said it was long believed that young children did not have the bacteria required to ferment resistant starch, but recent studies had proved otherwise.
“If the starch is able to be fermented in the large intestine of these children it means that they would generally be more healthy and able to extract nutrition from the food they are eating,” she said.
“We do also know resistant starch is effective at helping children recover from diarrhoea. What it does in the large intestine is actually allow the body to salvage some of the water that you would otherwise lose in the case of diarrhoea.”
Diarrhoea is the second largest killer of children in the world.
Mortimer said the researchers also believed the general nutritional benefit gained from the resistant starch could reduce stunting.
“We know that stunting has a range of long-term outcomes on not just physical health but also on socio-economic status,” she said.
“We also believe there may be some benefits of resistant starch in terms of actual immune parameters—it may well be that as well as improving nutrition, there could be an effect of avoiding infection or avoiding the very long-term consequences of infection.”
A group led by Geraint Rogers and his Flinders University team is measuring the number and type of bacteria, short-chain fatty acids and pH from the samples at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, a hub of 600 researchers investigating issues including mother and baby health and nutrition.
The chief investigator, leading Australian gastrointestinal expert, Graeme Young, said the project focused on whether young children had the gut bacteria required to produce small chain fatty acids from resistant starch.
“These fatty acids are important in assisting the healthy development in children and babies,” Professor Young said.
“Its conversion in the gut, however, is determined by many factors and is very different from children in Australia because of the environment, type of birth and the microflora of the mother.”
Flinders University’s global gastrointestinal health team is also working with the Gates Foundation-USAID Grand Challenge India on a study of how resistant starch, a special type of dietary fibre, assists nutritional and other health status when fed to young children or women of childbearing age.
In Africa, India and other low-income countries, more than half of deaths in children under the age of five years can be attributed to under-nutrition.