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A nutritious blue-green algae, known as spirulina, has been added to school meals in Jordan to combat chronic malnutrition and anaemia among children.

Almost one in ten Jordanian children suffer from chronic malnutrition, or long-term protein or energy deficiency, while a third are anaemic, according to a survey by the Jordanian Department of Statistics (DOS) made public in March.

The Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina against Malnutrition (IIMSAM), which has observer status with the UN Economic and Social Council, says spirulina is rich in protein and vitamin B, and contains beta-carotene that can overcome eye problems caused by Vitamin A deficiency. A tablespoon a day can eliminate iron anaemia, the most common mineral deficiency.

According to IIMSAM, a pilot feeding programme in two Kenyan schools from April 2009 to April 2010 helped cure 1,350 pupils suffering from malnutrition. The World Food Programme estimates that 22 per cent  of children under the age of five in Kenya are malnourished, significantly higher than the 15 per cent level which the World Health Organization uses as a threshold to describe an emergency situation.

Naseer S. Homoud, director of IIMSAM's Middle East Office, said spirulina has a role in fighting malnourishment, especially in children, and referred to "its low cost of farming as it can be grown even on infertile land and without a large water supply."

"Climatic changes are affecting our traditional ways of producing food — we had to find unconventional sources of nutrition," Jordan's minister of agriculture Mazen Khasawneh said. But he would not comment on the spirulina trial. "It is still too early to know if it is a successful experiment or not," he said.

First indications are that children at the early stages of primary education don't take to school meals with added spirulina. Pupil Khaled Sarhan said that, at first, he did not like the taste of school biscuits containing spirulina, but "after my teacher told me how useful it is, I got used to the taste after two or three days."

"Spirulina's bitter taste will be the main problem in spreading its use among children," Ahmed Khorshed, professor of food industries at Egypt's Agricultural Research Centre said, "but adding it to other food, like biscuits, could solve the taste problem partially." 

The project will report to the minister of agriculture by June 2011. If successful, spirulina meals will be expanded and could be rolled out elsewhere in the Middle East.

"Egypt will be our next stop," IIMSAM director-general, Remigio Maradona, said.

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