“I had so many opportunities at UBC,” said Kyly Whitfield. “Getting a PhD in Human Nutrition was an opportunity to fuse my passions for research and travel. Did I ever make the right choice!”
That choice has led Whitfield to her new position as tenure track assistant professor in the Department of Applied Human Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
Originally from Belleville, Ontario, Whitfield’s research involved testing the efficacy of thiamin-fortified fish sauce to combat infantile beriberi in Cambodia. Beriberi is a potentially deadly disease caused by a lack of thiamin (vitamin B1) in the diet.
“Infantile beriberi has basically been eradicated everywhere in the world but Southeast Asia,” she said. “In Cambodia, white rice is a large part of the diet but it’s not a great source of thiamin and it also displaces other thiamin rich foods.”
Maternal thiamin deficiency lowers breast milk thiamin concentrations, which in turn affects infant intake. “We knew that upping the mothers’ thiamin intake would increase breast milk thiamin, and in turn thiamin intake among breastfed babies. We decided to fortify fish sauce because it’s consumed by 90 percent of Cambodians, so it was already a regular part of their diet.”
In 2014, Whitfield, along with her PhD supervisor, former LFS Associate Professor Tim Green, received $112,000 for the project through a Grand Challenges Canada “Stars in Global Health” seed grant.
Whitfield worked with Helen Keller International in Prey Veng, Cambodia. She performed sensory tests on the fish sauce to see if thiamin affected the flavor (it did not). She then worked with a Cambodian company to develop and package the fish sauce. Next, she conducted a randomized controlled trial in which pregnant women received either a control (placebo) sauce, a sauce with a low concentration of thiamin or a sauce with a higher dose of thiamin.
“We found that the pregnant women who consumed either the low concentration or high concentration thiamin-fortified fish sauce over a six month period had significantly higher concentrations of thiamin in their blood compared to the women who consumed the control [placebo] sauce.”
Whitfield is currently writing grants to continue the project on a larger scale and get the thiamin-fortified sauce on the market, and is excited to start her own research program. “I’d like to start an international nutrition course at Mount Saint Vincent University so I can share my experiences.”