By Chioma Nmiriukwu
Nigeria is acknowledged as a leader in the production of cowpea, popularly called beans and the country also holds the record as the greatest consumer of the crop.
Cowpea is vital for a lot of reasons but in Africa, it is a crop that forms the bulk of food eaten in each household on a daily basis.
Cowpea is a nutritional wonder, with the capacity to rescue a lot of people from hunger. They are small, kidney-shaped beans in the legume family with a wide range of nutritional benefits. With just 1 cup or 171 grams of beans containing 13.22g of protein, it’s a very good source of vegetable protein and can serve as meat to people who cannot afford animal protein.
Dietary fibre, which is known for its ability to maintain bowel health, protect us from colon cancer and reduce blood cholesterol levels by working as a bulk laxative and bringing down reabsorption of cholesterol-binding bile acids in the colon, is found in abundance in cowpea, including the presence of the plant estrogen – Biochanin-A, making it an anti-cancer food.
Other health benefits of cowpea include;
• Gluten free, and can be enjoyed by people with celiac disease and gluten-allergy.
• Rich in essential amino acids and B vitamins, with a very high content of the very important folate, making it one of the preferred delicacies for pregnant women as folate may help prevent neural-tube defects in babies.
• Contains several essential minerals like Copper, Iron, Selenium, Calcium, Zinc, Phosphorus, Potassium and more.
• Contains little fat, making it a go-to food for people on a low-fat diet and with just 1 cup of cowpea containing 35.5g of carbohydrates (198kcals), cowpea can be filling, making it suitable to ward off hunger especially in a weight loss diet.
• Contains vitamin B1, which supports a healthy cardiovascular system
• Improves insulin sensitivity due to its magnesium content and sits comfortably as a low GI food option for people with diabetes.
With the worsening hunger situation in Nigeria due to food insecurity, malnutrition has become a real and present danger. The recently released results of the Fifth Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS5) showed that malnutrition among children under age five has worsened nationwide with the highest concerns in northern states. Child wasting (children who are too thin for their age) increased from 24.2% to 31.5%, while child stunting (children who are too short for their age) increased from 34.8% to 43.6%. This paints a very bleak future for Nigeria and any measure to improve the availability and affordability of food crops with dense nutrition will help reverse this problem. Cowpea can be the food crop of choice.
Cowpea can be used in various forms as food. The leaves come in handy in vegetable dishes, the dried seeds used as meat substitute or full dishes. Some households have found roasted cowpea seeds as a delicious snack and substitute for coffee, delicious meals of pudding and cakes are enjoyed by many, all derived from this food crop.
The recent discovery of the use of toxic insecticides to preserve legumes, especially cowpea has left many lovers of this delicious food crop to shiver. While farmers and sellers of cowpea are being blamed for being selfish and insensitive to the dangers that such chemicals can pose to human health, they should also be praised for their genuine motive to make this food available by preventing the activities of the feared Maruca pod borer and other insect attackers. The solution however is here with us already through the genetically modified cowpea. Our farmers no longer need to use these toxic chemicals on our cowpea, yield will increase, and more cowpea will be available for food.
The genetically modified cowpea can reposition beans as the ‘food security crop’ in Nigeria. With the biopesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in the genetically modified cowpea, fortified with the characteristic trait that will help reduce the need to spray insecticides, avoid insect attacks and boost yield, farmers can now enjoy great benefits from their efforts, and consumers will have this nutrient dense food crop available always and safe for their consumptions.
Chioma is a Clinical Nutritionist is based in Abuja.