The National Soybean Research Laboratory (NSRL) at the University of Illinois has recently conducted field trials in the central Asian country of Tajikistan which show that soy can serve as an excellent source to fortify the protein content of bread and other wheat-based foods in that strategically important part of the world.

"The trials showed that soy provides much-needed protein in the foods that are staples in the diets of millions of people who have little opportunity to obtain protein from other sources," says Pradeep Khanna, associate director of the NSRL. "From its inception, we have been working with the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH) to provide greater nutrition through food assistance programs throughout the world."

Primary funding for the WISHH program is provided by the United Soybean Board and the American Soybean Association. Additional funding has come from the Illinois Soybean Checkoff Board and state soybean organizations from across the country. The NSRL provides technical support for a wide range of projects sponsored by the program.

Tajikistan gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and has since experienced a difficult period of adjustment. Two-thirds of the population is below poverty levels and nearly half of the children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

"Many of the people there depend on international food assistance from the World Food Programme and private voluntary organizations, such as Save the Children, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services," Khanna says. "These groups use tons of wheat flour in school lunch programs, yet protein and other nutritional deficiencies remain common. We hope to have a major impact on that problem by incorporating soy into the flour used in those feeding programs."

As part of the project, the NSRL has collaborated with the North American Miller's Association to send two staff members to Tajikistan for the purpose of conducting tests on the potential for us of soy in the food aid programs already underway. Research Specialist Megan Puzey from the NSRL was one of those who traveled there last fall to assist in the effort.

"Prior to their departure, our staff conducted extensive tests of these soy-fortified products under a variety of conditions, ranging from fire-fed clay ovens to commercial bakeries," Khanna says. "Archer Daniel Midlands Company has provided the flour, which is about 12% soy, 87% wheat, and 1% vitamin-mineral premix. This soy-fortified product can increase the protein content of food by as much as 40%."

The results of the field testing in Tajikistan proved positive both in terms of taste and ease of use in the types of foods that local residents would normally eat.

"The product proved especially well adapted for use in both breads and in noodles for soup," Puzey says. "In school trials, most children preferred the buns made with soy flour. Many of the children even saved the bread so that they could take it home to younger siblings who do not have access to a school meal program."

Additional tests of this soy-fortified flour were conducted by the World Food Programme in Afghanistan, where more then 9 million people are receiving U.S. food assistance. Further trials are also scheduled for Pakistan in the near future.

"Research trials like this verify the potential that soy has to do good in the world," Khanna said. "Through these efforts we are also gaining much wider international recognition for new uses of soy, especially in value-added products such as flour. This project represents a 'win-win' situation for both U.S. soybean producers and food aid recipients."