Karat Gold - the life-saving banana of Pohnpei
The Micronesia island of Pohnpei is facing a public health time bomb as rates of vitamin A deficiency, cancer and heart disease have increased rapidly in the last three decades. Now, more than half of children on this Pacific island under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency and one-fifth of adults have diabetes. But help may be very close at hand, in the form of 'Karat' (Musa spp), a Fe'i banana of the Australimusa series.
Karat, known for its yellow-orange flesh and erect bunches, has been grown in Pohnpei for centuries. The fruit is very high in beta-carotene, a provitamin A carotenoid that can be converted in the body into vitamin A. Diets containing foods rich in beta-carotene can also help protect against certain chronic diseases, and raising awareness of the benefits of Karat and other locally-grown foods is bringing about a sea change in Pohnpei's eating habits.
"Islanders have traditionally treasured Karat - it's their infant food, along with breast milk after six months of age," says Dr Lois Englberger, of the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (IFCP). "But, in recent years, it's been neglected and has become rare."
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the diets of Pohnpeians - traditionally rich in starchy foods such as breadfruit, banana, taro, and yam - took a turn for the worse. Lifestyle changes and food aid programmes, based on imported rice, saw rice quickly become an established staple. Other food imports also gained favour due to their low cost, convenience, long shelf-life and perceived status. As consumption of instant noodles, soft drinks and fatty, processed meats like corned beef and 'turkey tail' soared, so too did Pohnpei's health problems.
By 2005, locally-produced food accounted for only a quarter of islanders' calorie intake. What Englberger calls "the three white sins" - white rice, flour and sugar - were in high demand and official advice to change eating habits was falling on deaf ears. "People were being told to eat local food because it was good for them, but there was no proof behind the health claims," recalls Englberger. "That's when people started telling me about Karat."
Samples of Karat were tested and found to contain high levels of beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids. Encouraged by the findings, Englberger then investigated the possible health properties of other neglected indigenous species, including giant swamp taro, seeded breadfruit and pandanus; all contained high levels of provitamin A and other carotenoids, as well as essential micronutrients including zinc, iron and calcium.
Spreading the word
But, despite being armed with scientific evidence, changing islanders' eating habits remained a formidable challenge. So, IFCP and its partners used local radio and television to raise awareness of the benefits of local foods, with Karat as the figurehead. They also wrote songs, distributed posters and introduced the 'Let's Go Local High School Club' to promote island foods. In collaboration with the Federated States of Micronesia Philatelic Bureau, postage stamps depicting Karat and eight other rare, carotenoid-rich banana varieties were printed. The result: Karat bananas can now be found on sale at local markets, where previously they were hard to find. "People have become very excited because their own food is being promoted," says Englberger. "For the Pohnpei islanders, offering rice used to be a sign of status and initially it was embarrassing for some people to offer local food," she says. "This attitude is changing now."
Rekindling belief in Karat, and promoting locally-grown food, may be showing signs of success in Pohnpei, but challenges remain in other Pacific islands. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have Karat-like varieties but local people have expressed concern about the way their urine turns bright yellow after eating them. This effect is due to Karat's high riboflavin (vitamin B2) content, but some incorrectly believe the banana causes yellow fever or hepatitis. In Fiji, there are reports of a banana similar to Karat, called the 'mountain banana', but few people are aware that it is edible. Tahiti and Vanuatu also have their own Karat-like Fe'i bananas - though, again, few are aware of their health benefits.
Nevertheless, Englberger is encouraged by the progress so far. "We need to continue to help people understand the many benefits of local foods, help provide planting materials of the rare varieties, and develop smallscale processing of local foods for convenience and value-addition. People are talking about local food much more now," she continues. "The ongoing challenge is to get these messages repeated as widely and as many times as possible."
Date published: May 2008
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