Wai Hlaing Bwar, an undergraduate researcher in the Tanumihardjo Lab in nutritional sciences, prepares samples of ground corn with different carotenoid profiles for testing at the Nutritional Sciences Building at UW–Madison in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Similar to a darkroom, the research is done under yellow filtered light since carotenoids can degrade under full-spectrum light. Photo by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

CALS researchers are looking for clues in maize that could help combat Vitamin A deficiency. Wai Hlaing “Chris” Bwar, a dietetics major from Yangon, Myanmar, is working under nutritional sciences’ Sherry Tanumihardjo and Chris Davis on a colorful mission: to learn how different processing techniques for corn impact the nutritional availability of carotenoids, the yellow pigments in food that our bodies convert to Vitamin A.

For example, nixtamalization — where maize is heated and steeped in lime or ash — used in Central America can result in a much different nutritional profile than more mechanical processing techniques common in Africa. The lab’s research is done under yellow-filtered light since carotenoids can degrade under full-spectrum light.

While Vitamin A deficiency isn’t currently a concern for the United States and most of the developed world, it’s a much different story in parts of Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia. As many as 250 million children worldwide suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Between 250,000 and 500,000 go blind from the malnourishment each year, with half of those dying within 12 months of losing their vision.