News - January 26, 2016

Wild vegetables possibly valuable for pregnant women

Rob Ramaker

Women in Ghana and Benin eat leaves of different plant species during their pregnancy. A habit, researchers think, that could help fight malnutrition.

PhD student Alexandra Towns interviewed the women in West-Africa about their plant use / Photo: Alexandra Towns

Especially during pregnancy the lack of for example iron is particularly harmful. Tinde van Andel, professor Etnobotany at Wageningen University and professor at the University of Leiden, and PhD student Alexandra Towns write in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Lack of iron, zinc, vitamin A and to a lesser extend iodine are large problems in developing countries. For example, hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from iron deficiency caused by anaemia. ‘Deficiencies during pregnancy and the first two life years often have lasting effects’, says Alida Melse-Boonstra, university lecturer for Human Nutrition, ‘because these four substances are extremely important in the construction of the nervous system.’ For example, children with a deficiency perform less well at school. Although the problem is receiving full attention, especially the deficiencies of iron and zinc are persistent.

Eating wild plants is not a sign of despair and poverty.
Dried leaves of Hibiscus acetosella_alexandra_towns.jpg

Dried leaves of the ‘cranberry hibiscus’(Hibiscus acetosella) / Photo: Alexandra Towns

Van Andel and Towns questioned, together with a group of students and translators, 56 women about their plant use. Furthermore, we checked which plants were for sale on the market. It was found that pregnant woman used all sorts of wild plants for cooking and making tea. In total 105 species were named: 81 in Benin and 32 in Ghana, with 8 overlapping species. ‘It are often weeds that you can see along the road, or that people take with them and plant in their own garden.’ Frequently mentioned species from the forest and savannah were the liana (Dichapetalum madagascariense) and the Violet tree (Securidaca longipedunculata). According to the consumers these work strengthening or let the baby grow faster.

In the scientific literature Van Andel and Towns discovered proof of several plant species containing valuable nutrients. However this knowledge is often lacking, and it is not clear which substances plants contain and if our bodies can absorb them. ‘This would have to be tested in a lab’, says Andel.

Deficiencies during pregnancy and the first two life years often have lasting effects

The botanist suspects that wild plants can help provide the poorest with free nutrients. Governments and western aid workers should not discourage the harvest, like it happened in the past in Malawi. Eating wild plants is not a sign of despair and poverty, says Van Andel, but a practice that is normal in African cultures. ‘Also people with more prosperity continue with it.’

Nutrition scientist Melse-Boonstra tempers the optimism. So far the research is not encouraging. ‘One of the large problems with “African vegetables” is that they provide little nutrition.’ The tough cell wall ensures that our body cannot make the nutrients available. Melse-Boomstra thinks that the deficiency can best be fought by distributing supplements or enriching the food. ‘I am open for surprises.’ Besides, this does not mean that Melse-Boonsra thinks that eating wild plants is a bad idea. They are a welcome source of variety in the often static African diets.