A food supplement developed by researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to get meat products into the diets of Kenyan children may end up as the basis for a nutritious American snack.
But it is not likely that rabbit or goat meat will provide the protein in snacks marketed in this country as they do in Africa. "I expect that chicken or beef would be used here," says Ed Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science, chuckling. "For Kenya, we utilized meats that were most readily available so that the product could be made locally. I'm not sure Americans are ready for snack foods made from rabbit or goat meat."
The product, dubbed Chiparoos by Stephen Kieras, a graduate student who worked on the project, was developed about five years ago after Penn State nutrition scientists learned that a lack of animal products in the diets of very young sub-Saharan African children and their mothers was hampering the children's physical and mental development.
"Research shows that even a small amount of animal products in the diet of nursing mothers and children just after they are weaned improves the kids' mental capabilities," Mills says. "If you get the animal products into the child's diet, you help with cognitive abilities later on. And we know now that if you miss that opportunity at that very young age, you don't get a second chance."
So Mills searched for a "mechanism" to deliver that specialized nourishment, and came up with Chiparoos -- thick, brittle chips that would remind Americans of heavy-duty home-style potato chips. The big difference is that along with the carbohydrates provided by the potato, Chiparoos also deliver protein from meat. Mills and Kieras developed a low-technology solar drying process for Chiparoos that can be used by Africans and result in long shelf life.
"At this critical time in their development, kids are just getting teeth, so we needed to come up with a food they can eat easily," says Mills. "Older children can eat Chiparoos right out of the package, but for infants, their mother can crumble them up into their porridge. For impoverished kids suffering from malnutrition, this doesn't offer a balanced diet by any stretch of the imagination, but it gets them a small amount of the meat products that they need."
Whether Americans will like a Chiparoos-like snack remains to be seen, but Kenyans do. Under Mills’ supervision, Kieras convened what was probably the first sensory (taste) tests ever conducted in Kenyan villages. "With the help of translators, Kieras gauged the residents' reaction to sampling Chiparoos," Mills says. "Particularly mothers with children responded favorably to them. They liked the taste and said they'd use them because they are so easy to add to kids' diets."
The taste of Chiparoos was intentionally kept bland, Mills points out, so they can be added unobtrusively to porridge, but any number of spices could be used to make them more attractive in this country. "How about Cajun Spice Chiparoos," Mills asks with a wink, "or Chesapeake Bay Spice Chiparoos?"
And come to think of it, he adds, maybe using exotic meats such as rabbit or goat is not a bad idea after all. "I could see these being offered as a niche item with a long, stable shelf life that would be perfect for small producers and farmers' markets -- low-fat, extremely nutritious snacks with a taste profile tailored to a particular region of the country. I really do think there is an application for Chiparoos in the United States."
The beauty of Chiparoos seems to be the balanced nutritional marriage of meat protein and potato carbohydrate, but Mills wonders if an adjustment in the ingredients might make them more attractive to this Atkins diet-crazed society. "Instead of potato, perhaps a nonnutritive carbohydrate could be used to make Chiparoos a low-carb snack ideal for those on the Atkins or South Beach diets," he says. "The possibilities seem endless."