Dr. Laura Smith helps kids grow by revealing what is in their food

By JESSICA SCATES

Published August 2, 2017

How do you make decisions about the food you eat? Do you look at the price? The list of ingredients? Perhaps you pay particular attention to whether your food is non-GMO, gluten free, or certified organic?  

Real impact can only be achieved by changing complex health behaviors and teaching future researchers how to link their research to policy
Dr. Laura Smith, Assistant Professor
University at Buffalo

Food packaging in the U.S., and in many countries around the world, provide clear information about the ingredients and nutrients in your food, but many foods may contain toxins, unknown to both the producer and the consumer. The Community for Global Health Equity, in partnership with the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, recently hired assistant professor, Dr. Laura Smith, an expert in international nutrition, child growth, and development whose work is focused on answering some of these questions by paying particular attention to poisonous chemical compounds called mycotoxins.

Around the world, common agricultural products are susceptible to fungus. Wheat, corn, barley, and peanuts are particularly susceptible to a fungus that produces mycotoxins. These compounds can cause acute, severe illness if ingested by humans, while others might cause longer-term chronic or cumulative effects, including cancers and immune deficiency. The best way to control for mycotoxins is through prevention: good agricultural practices and sufficient drying of crops after harvest. However, a large majority of the world’s farmers are subsistence farmers (they eat what they grow) and their products aren’t controlled by government screening or regulations. Therefore, “mycotoxin exposure [and negative health outcomes are] more likely to occur in parts of the world where poor methods of food handling and storage are common, where malnutrition is a problem, and where few regulations exist to protect exposed populations” (NIH.gov).

Now, what if the food you consume is contaminated with mycotoxins but you didn’t even know that they existed? Whose job is it to investigate their health effects and then communicate those findings to you? All too often, important findings like the negative health effects of mycotoxins have never left a published academic journal. Dr. Smith is doing her part to ensure that her research makes an impact on the food decision behaviors of women and their families around the world.

Receiving her PhD in International Nutrition from Cornell University, Dr. Smith’s research has been focused in Zimbabwe since 2012 with a large rigorous study called the SHINE trial.  The SHINE trial’s aims are to understand how sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition impact child growth, anemia and early childhood development. With estimates of 4.5 billion people exposed to dietary mycotoxins, many in low-income countries (Smith, 2015), Dr. Smith’s work seeks to understand if exposure to mycotoxins in pregnancy and within the first 1000 days of life cause stunting in children, or impaired growth and development which leads to poor cognition, lost productivity, and increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases in adult life. Her research will expand to Dodoma, Tanzania this fall with a SHINE project that aims to estimate the causal effect of aflatoxin (a type of mycotoxin) on child growth.

Dr. Smith says she accepted her position at UB primarily because of its dedication to interdisciplinary research. As she looks toward her future, Dr. Smith aims to impact the field of child nutrition and health by reshaping how researchers address world problems. Dr. Smith suggests that real impact can only be achieved by (1) changing complex health behaviors and (2) teaching future researchers (UB Students) how to link research with better policy-driven questions and talk with policy makers to create policy change and improve population health.

The main SHINE trial findings on which Dr. Smith has been working will be presented at the Annual Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in November 2017, at a symposium organized by UB’s Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health and Director of the Community for Global Health Equity, Dr. Pavani K. Ram.