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International Health

February 12, 2020

Joanne Katz Receives Grant to Evaluate the Effect of a Fortified Snack Food on Women’s Nutritional Status in Rural South Asia

Mars Inc. recently launched a low-cost snack food, fortified with protein and nutrients, in rural areas of India. Called GoMo, the commercially available product is intended to be an affordable food supplement for populations chronically affected by food insecurity. Joanne Katz, ScD, a professor in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to evaluate the effect on women’s micronutrient status of a rice-bran version of GoMo specially formulated to meet the needs of pregnant women.

Mars has formulated two special versions of GoMo, not yet available on the market, for pregnant women. One uses pea flour, as the original product does. A separate independent study is evaluating the effectiveness of that version. Katz and her team will investigate whether substituting rice bran, a cheaper ingredient, has any effect on the product’s effectiveness to supply nutrients. In addition to costing less than pea flour, rice bran provides fiber, an important part of one’s diet. There is some evidence, however, that fiber may interfere with the absorption of iron and other micronutrients. This study will therefore assess the impact of substituting rice bran for yellow pea flour on micronutrient status.

Researchers plan on enrolling approximately 170 non-pregnant women of child-bearing age in a randomized controlled trial located in Sarlahi, Nepal. Every week, participants will receive supplies of either the specially formulated rice-based or pea-based snack. Packaging will be identical except for an assigned code, and Mars-India will attempt to make both products appear and taste identical. After two months, nutritional levels will be tested, including levels of vitamins A and E, iron and zinc. Researchers will also compare the effects on the gut microbiome.

If the rice-bran formulation of GoMo proves viable, the product could go on to be tested among pregnant women. The availability of an affordable food supplement would help pregnant women in low-resource areas get the additional protein, calories and micronutrients needed to support the growing fetus and prevent underweight birth. Furthermore, in many low-income countries, including Nepal, pregnant women buy micronutrient supplement tablets. GoMo could potentially replace those tablets while also providing the extra protein and calories pregnant women need.

The study is a collaborative effort between the Bloomberg School and Stanford University. Researchers at Stanford will lead the gut microbiome testing. Study results should be available in 2022.