Supplement-protector tackles malnutrition

28 November 2019

BREAD AND CEREAL GRAINS

Sliced bread on table, next to wheat grain

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Using a new micropolymer called BMC, US scientists have figured out how to stabilise nutrients added to food...

Rickets, scurvy, beriberi… we’ve learnt the hard way that keeping our vitamin levels in check is essential for good health. But while these conditions are associated with bygone eras and now seem manageable, the developing world continues to struggle with the consequences of malnutrition.

Around 2 billion people suffer from vitamin deficiencies, with micronutrient deficiency known as “hidden hunger”. This can cause birth defects, anaemia, impaired growth and blindness and leads to 50% of deaths of children under 5 according to the WHO. This physical weakness can contribute to “the cycle of poverty” and severely impact the prospects of low-income families.

While a balanced diet is ideal, in countries with limited access to a wide variety of foods this isn’t possible. The solution: fortify cupboard staples, like rice, maize, even salt, and ensure people can get what their body needs. Although strides have been made to fortify foodstuffs, there are still technical challenges to be resolved. Though an effective way to introduce these nutrients into the diet, certain additions like iron can also make the food taste unpalatable. Furthermore, as senior author Ana Jacklenec explains, in countries with prevalent malnutrition, foods rich in micronutrients are often simmered in stews, and this heat can destroy their nutritional content.

In this new paper, researchers at MIT used a polymer to coat a combination of micronutrients. After testing 50 different polymers they settled on BMC, a microparticle already approved by the FDA that is only slightly larger in diameter than a single human hair. It was able to make the nutrients stable at different levels of heat, moisture and light. Eleven micronutrients were encapsulated in this particular experiment, including iron, niacin, zinc, folic acid, and an array of those all-important lettered vitamins.

They tested the intestinal absorption of these coated micronutrients in rodents, finding that the capsule acted as protection from various factors but still dissolved appropriately in gastric acid as intended. These results were also found in mini-organs, grown to replicate human intestines, which showed, for example, a 30-fold increase in iron absorption.

These effects were tested within a human trial of 44 people. The team also compared the taste of their new ‘super-bread’ with one unsupplemented, with little difference to the experience. Even Bill Gates, whose foundation funded the research, was unable to distinguish between the two.

By shielding key micronutrients with this polymer, scientists have found a way to preserve nutritional content and tackle the scourge of deficiencies in developing countries. Though it may cost more and be tricky to implement, helping a third of the world would prove more than worthwhile in the future, “not just on health, but on the economy, on education” alongside other indirect benefits.

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