Manju Reddy is combating global food challenges by testing under-utilized, locally-grown foods that provide high iron absorption with few negative side effects. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Iron availability research creates worldwide food security

Iowa State University food and nutritional scientists are at the heart of an initiative to create food security around the world by improving the nutritional value of existing foods.

One of those concerns is iron deficiency, the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world — including both developing and industrialized nations — according to the World Health Organization. Manju Reddy, the Doris A. Adams Endowed Chair in Food Science and Human Nutrition, is focused on making iron more available with natural iron compounds and foods.

“Without proper iron levels, children’s cognitive development is affected. Pregnancies are at greater risk for premature births, and babies have a greater difficulty bonding with their mothers,” she said.

Pursuing new approaches

Reddy’s research explores strategies for increasing iron absorption through supplementation and fortification.

“We need to find new approaches,” she said. “We need to ask how we can improve nutrition using multiple strategies, including supplementation, fortification, and identification of underutilized nutrient-dense foods.”

One such underutilized food is the tepary bean. Reddy and graduate student Amanda Bries worked in collaboration with Donna Winham, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition, to test the bean’s iron availability. They found the tepary had significantly higher iron availability than pinto and black beans.

“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to reducing food insecurity and improving iron status for optimal child growth and human nutrition,” Winham said. “The need for using various strategies is a critical contribution to global health.”

Reddy is also looking into the potential of harnessing a mineral-enriched koji fungus used to ferment soybeans for iron supplementation and fortification. In fall 2016, Reddy received more than $100,000 for her research through a contract with a private start-up company.

An initial absorption study of the fungus, Aspiron, in humans showed that koji iron is well absorbed, leading the company to introduce the product in the supplementation market. The second human study was conducted this summer by Bries with a new formulation suitable for food fortification.

“If Aspiron shows a high level of absorption, then we can use it as a supplement in iron pills or by food manufacturers in their fortifications,” Reddy said.

Reddy is also testing iron availability with insect-based sources, like cricket flour and palm weevil larvae, and turkey berry, an underutilized iron-rich vegetable. This summer, another of Reddy’s graduate students traveled to Ghana to collect data on the attitudes of communities regarding the consumption of insect powder and turkey berries for their health benefits.

“We’re looking at how feasible it is to use under-utilized, locally-grown foods,” Reddy said. “Our hope is that globally, we can make a difference by reducing the prevalence of anemia.”