Food industry key to tackling iron deficiency: Review

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Iron deficiency Nutrition

The food industry holds a vital role in helping to improve iron intakes and iron status through fortification, says a new review.

The review paper, published in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology, ​suggests that industry must work together to produce products that are appropriate to tackle the global problem of iron deficiency.

“The food industry, in particular, has the potential to play a key role in improving the utilisation of iron from foods that are currently sold and using scientific and technological advances to enhance this even further,”​ wrote the researchers, led by Dr Emma Derbyshire, from Manchester Metropolitan University.


Iron deficiency affects approximately 2 billion people worldwide, and is the leading nutrient deficiency in both developed as well as developing countries.

Derbyshire and colleagues noted that while iron supplements may be effective in the short-term, consuming an iron-rich food may be more effective with individuals with mild iron deficiency in the longer term.

In some regions, the authors said the disease burden associated with iron deficiency may be reduced by 19–58 per cent through the fortification of foods. However, iron fortification can pose several challenges for industry – most notably with regard to effects on colour, taste, and the shelf-life of the food.

Fortification future?

The authors noted that functional foods are becomingly increasingly popular, saying that this may be due to their ability to confer health and physiological benefits.

“Although we are increasingly seeing plant sterols added to foods, omega-3 and high-fibre food products, until now the iron content of foods has not received much attention but this is certainly an area that is worthy of further attention,”​ wrote the researchers.

They added that the food industry can play an important role in developing foods, which help to deliver high proportions of bioavailable iron to the public. Alongside this, they suggested that collaborations between food industry, food and nutrition scientists, and public sectors, “could be of benefit to all parties involved.”

“National governments could reap health, economic and political benefits whilst food companies could gain a competitive advantage in an expanding consumer marketplace,”​ said Derbyshire and colleagues.

“For such approaches to be effective, industry, food and nutrition scientists need to work together to formulate the best products containing appropriate levels of iron for required for health outcomes,”​ they wrote.

Recent developments

Earlier this year Unilever said it is was exploring vegetarian iron​ for fortification uses. A study from Unilever said that the iron compounds from vegetable origin could mimic iron from animal sources and may enhance bioavailability, boosting fortification programmes.

Nestlé scientists have developed a new inorganic iron source​ with excellent organoleptic properties, which they say could be used in colour and flavour sensitive foods, such as chocolate drinks and milk powders.

DSM has also suggested that the enzyme phytase could be used to break down phytic acid, and therefore enable a low-dose iron supplement to be more effective.

“Phytase was added to DSM's food supplement MixMe, which is added as a single serving supplement to regular meals. The results were a fivefold increase in iron absorption, even from meals like maize porridge that are high in phytic acid,”​ said DSM.

The continued development of nano-structures has also benefitted the potential for iron fortification. With researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich reporting that new nano-iron compounds​, may allow for innovative fortifications.

Source: International Journal of Food Science & Technology
Volume 45, Issue 12, pages 2443–2448, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2621.2010.02431.x
“Iron deficiency – is there a role for the food industry?”
Authors: E. Derbyshire, C.S. Brennan, W. Li, F. Bokhari


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