Micronutrient Fortification  
Innovative Ingredient Technologies: Enhancing Iron Absorption

The cereal based diets of developing countries contain plant compounds such as phytates and phenols that inhibit the body’s absorption and use of dietary iron. A SUSTAIN task force of nutritional, medical, industry and government experts assessed the potential for innovative ingredient technologies to increase the bioavailability of intrinsic and fortificant iron. Absorption enhancers and strategies to buffer or counter the action of iron inhibitors were evaluated in this first comprehensive effort to explore the potential use of ingredient technologies to address iron deficiency.

Five different approaches for increasing bioavailability of fortification iron were assessed, including: addition of ascorbic acid and other organic acids, addition of NaFeEDTA or other EDTA compounds, addition of amino acid chelates, degradation of phytate and encapsulation of highly bioavailable compounds, such as ferrous sulfate. Issues of concern to industry, including cost, how ingredients affect food taste and appearance, their potential for commercialization and intellectual property issues were also addressed.

Scientific presentations on the five iron enhancing strategies were presented and vetted with a broader audience of specialists from industry, the science/nutrition community and government at SUSTAIN's "Iron Enhancers Workshop" held in March, 2003 in Washington, DC. The meetings culminated with consensus statements about each technology's promise and limitations – a basis from which to continue pursuit of this innovative strategy for combating iron deficiency.

While all iron enhancing strategies cannot be recommended for all food fortification vehicles, individual strategies can be recommended for specific foods. For example, the addition of ascorbic acid is appropriate for dry blended foods such as infant foods and other dry products made for reconstitution that are packaged, stored and prepared in a way that maximizes retention of this vitamin. NaFeEDTA can be recommended for fortification of product such as soy sauce, whereas amino acid chelates may be more useful in milk products and beverages. With further development, dephytinization may be possible for low cost cereal-based complementary foods in developing countries.

SUSTAIN’s task force report on this project, “Enhancing the Absorption of Fortification Iron: A SUSTAIN Task Force Report,” appeared in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, Vol. 74 No. 6, November 2004. The full report consists of an overview paper followed by five scientific papers, each focusing in depth on a specific enhancement strategy, and a cost analysis.

This project was supported through the generosity of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and contributions from many participating companies and individuals.

Project related publications include: