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Understanding dietary practices in marginalised tribal communities of india

to improve nutrition security and combat risk of malnutrition



The NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health in Cambridge led by Professor Sumantra Ray along with the NNEdPro India team have been investigating the diets of ‘Santhal’ tribe communities in rural India to identify key nutritional gaps. This consultancy work is providing a nutritional science basis to the Global Research Translation Award (GRTA) activities led by Professor Nitya Rao (UEA) in collaboration with Indian partner PRADAN.


The project is seeking to encourage diet diversification in rural communities to improve nutrition and health. By suggesting subtle changes to traditional recipes which complement existing dietary and lifestyle patterns, the partners hope to achieve nutritional adequacy for these indigenous communities.



The Nutritional Analysis Process


With support from PRADAN, young Santhali people collected over 100 traditional recipes from their communities. The dietary assessment team at NNEdPro selected 32 individual recipes and 26 consumed menu templates for analysis. Some food ingredients specific to the Santhal tribe were not available through software such as Nutritics e.g. Red ants, Mahua flower, and certain green leafy vegetables (GLVs), therefore advice was provided from the NNEdPro India team based on Nutritive values of Indian foods (National Institute of Nutrition, India).


Caption: Red Ants collected for a traditional recipe


Each recipe was screened for deficiencies in total energy (kcal), macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and micronutrients (sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Pantothenic acid, folates, vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and vitamin C). Dietary values for which the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad lacked reference to, like starch, fibre, sugars, saturated fat, mono-unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, omega 3 and trans fatty acids, were obtained from the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.



Creation of New Menu Templates


First, the NNEdPro UK team identified potential deficiencies through a nutritional analysis of the consumed menu templates. Next, the NNEdPro India team suggested new menu templates which could provide individuals in the Santhal tribe with all their nutritional needs, making a conscious effort to honour the Santhali indigenous recipes as much as possible.


The result is 18 menu templates and 4 supplementary templates which fulfil the following criteria:

▪ Providing nutrients as per Dietary Reference Values (DRV), known as Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) in India

▪ Allowing sufficient micronutrients

▪ Making very small changes to consumption patterns

▪ Keeping all indigenous recipes in menu

▪ Not introducing new recipes

▪ Ensuring the method and time of cooking is reasonable

▪ Considering affordability, availability, acceptability

▪ Promoting egg consumption

▪ Adding snacks in between meals


Each meal template represented 40% of daily individual needs, and individuals were assumed to consume 2 meal templates per day in addition to a snack which covered the remaining 20% of their intake.



Nutritional Analysis Findings


After analysing the traditional recipes and consumed menus, the NNEdPro team discovered that the main nutrients of concern were energy, fat (particularly saturated fat), fibre, potassium, calcium, zinc, iron, iodine, vitamin E and the B vitamins, including B1, B2, B6, B9 and B12.


After the first round of improving the menu templates, the team saw significant improvements in the percentage of new menu templates meeting the DRVs:

• Fat increased from 5.8% to 72% of DRV

• Calcium increased by 30%

• Iron increased by 38%

• Zinc increased by 56%

• Vitamin E increased by 57%

• Vitamin B1, B9 and B12 increased by 34%, 47% and 55% respectively.


For example, the Santhal tribe would typically consume Sakarkand/alu saag with rice. However, based on the nutritional analysis this meal was not meeting the requirements for energy (for males), fibre, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, thiamine and folate. Adding 40g of Ghanghra Daal, a dish made up of blackeye beans, cumin, red and green chilli peppers and salt, showed an increase in energy, protein, fibre, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, thiamine and folate (by 7%, 26%, 25%, 32%, 15%, 42%, 21%, 47% and 340%, respectively). This new menu template now meets all the nutritional requirements.



Understanding the science in a cultural context


PRADAN conducted Dietary Diversity Questionnaires (DDQ) to understand the dietary patterns and cultural behaviours of the Santhal communities. A total of 100 DDQs were conducted between November to December 2020, covering demographic information of household members and various food groups. Ages of household members ranged between 6 months to 80 years of age; and food preparation was mainly carried out by women, with the average age being 36 years old.


The different food groups included cereals, white roots and tubers, green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, vitamin A rich vegetables, vitamin A rich fruit, other fruit, animal organs, meat, eggs, fish or other aquatic foods, pulses and seeds, milk and dairy, oils and fats, sweets and snacks. The questionnaires also collected information about food preferences, source of food (subsistence from own land, purchased from a market or other), frequency of consumption, and food availability throughout the year.


For example; Rice was the preferred type of cereal, with 79% of individuals consuming rice in the last 24 hours. Additionally, 64% of respondents reported that cereals are sourced on their own land and 19% reporting that they are sourced from the market. We found that the majority of individuals (66%) consume cereals on a daily basis, and all respondents reported that cereals are available throughout the year.



Producing a Recipe Book for the local communities


The NNEdPro team are going to present the improved menu templates in the form of a recipe book, which has been informed by a good understanding of the local context. The DDQs have provided rich information about availability of local produce, accessibility to wider markets, traditional eating and lifestyle habits, type of labour, and cooking/preparation facilities. By connecting the nutritional science with the community context, the partners can be confident that the suggested improved recipes in the recipe book will meet the dietary needs and will be adopted by the local people because they are culturally relevant and appropriate.



This blog was published on 09 December 2021 and was written by the team at NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health (Sarah Armes, Project Officer/Research Assistant, Sally Ayyad, Project Officer/Research Assistant, Professor Sumantra (Shumone) Ray, NNEdPro Chair & Executive Director, Sanchita Banerjee, Deputy Network Lead (India) & Project Officer). Edited by Professor Nitya Rao and Hannah Gray, University of East Anglia.


Acknowledgements to: Wanja Nyaga, Xunhan Li, Luke Buckner, Aseem Manna, Shuvojit Chakraborty, Nivedita Narain, Arundhita Bhanjdeo and Ayesha Pattnaik.

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