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Food for thought

Issue 18 | November 2006

Report: Karen Stichtenoth
Photography: Greg Ford and Getty Images

Professor Mark Wahlqvist.

World-renowned food and nutrition expert Professor Mark Wahlqvist is at the forefront of an international move to promote the benefits of African food to the world community.

Professor Mark Wahlqvist AO, founding director of the Asia Pacific Health and Nutrition Centre at the Monash Asia Institute, is passionate about food and nutrition, African food especially.

As one of the world's foremost experts on food and nutrition, he is leading an international crusade to assist Africa and promote the health benefits of African food.

"African foods and food culture have contributed greatly to the world and we don't really acknowledge it," he says.

Examples include the Lamiceae family of plants -- culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary and thyme -- that originated from North Africa; fruits such as the banana from east Africa; and the red palm tree from West Africa.

"Bananas are a very important part of the human diet given what we now know about dietary fibre and human health," Professor Wahlqvist says.

"Palm oil is the most important food oil in the world in terms of the human diet. Wherever red palm fruit is used the people are generally in better health and there is generally no vitamin A deficiency. The fruit of the red palm is really a wonderful foodstuff."

During his term as president of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences (2001--2005), Professor Wahlqvist played an active role in developing an interest in, and trying to obtain more respect for, African food culture and acknowledging its huge contribution to human health.

Among his aims is to champion traditional African food cultures online (via the Healthy Eating Club) and encourage greater research into African food culture.

Professor Wahlqvist's motto is 'it's not just what we can do for Africa -- it's what Africa has done and can do for the world'.

On the menu: A Monash researcher is promoting the benefits of African food.

He believes one of the ways to help Africa is by linking food with trade, health, economic and community development.

"Nutrition science, particularly with its partners in technology -- energy, transport, agriculture, food, information and communication -- can contribute much to community development in Africa. And linkages between communities provide great opportunities for health and development," he says.

What Africa needs, he says, is a world-wide movement involving science and passion, and people with a shared interest.

"Collaboration between communities is the key, but you won't change things unless you are passionate and want to make a difference."

Through Professor Wahlqvist's work at the centre, based at Monash University's Clayton campus, his involvement with the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, and his unrivalled connections with scientific, government and public health organisations worldwide, he is bound to make a difference.

"We all have a strong responsibility to get on with assisting Africa to resolve its food, nutrition and health problems," Professor Wahlqvist says.

"The Asia Pacific Health and Nutrition Centre has a very keen sense of the role of food and nutrition in the development of the Asia-Pacific region, but it's also developing a stronger focus on Africa, which is a natural extension of the work that the centre has been doing."

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