Biofortified, iron-rich rice improves the nutrition of women

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Lack of iron is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world, afflicting more than 3.5 billion people, mostly the world's poorest. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of all pregnant women in the developing world develop anemia, which can cause cognitive and motor impairment in their children.

In industrialized countries, enriching foods such as bread, cereals, and rice during manufacturing is a common solution. "But that's expensive, and needs to be done at the national level," says Laura Murray-Kolb, a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellow in child development at Penn State.

A more sustainable solution, some think, is to selectively breed a new variety of rice that is high in iron. "Biofortification builds a higher iron level into the plant itself," Murray-Kolb explains. "It's not genetically engineered. It's just a new variety of a staple food in its natural state, bred for higher iron content. If it's introduced into the culture and people consume it every day, we hope to see a benefit from generation to generation."

But will it work? Using a biofortified rice developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a non-profit research and training center based in the Philippines, an interdisciplinary team from Penn State, Cornell, and the University of Philippines designed a nine-month double-blind study to test bioavailability. The driving question, Murray-Kolb explains, was "Is the higher iron level in this rice is being absorbed by those who eat it?"

In addition to Murray-Kolb, the Penn State team included John Beard, a professor of nutrition whose research centers on iron-deficiency issues. The lead author on the study was Jere Haas, professor of maternal and child nutrition at Cornell.

The University of Philippines researchers suggested the perfect test subjects: Philippine religious sisters. "We wanted to do a large-scale feeding trial," says Murray-Kolb, "but we wanted it to be as controlled as possible. We wanted compliance and we didn't want a high drop-out rate. The sisters were women of childbearing age sharing a common kitchen, and they were very cooperative with the requirements of our study."

192 Catholic religious sisters in 10 convents took part, eating only the experimental rice which contains four to five times more iron than commercially available rice in the Philippines. After nine months, blood samples showed the iron status of the sisters was 20 percent higher than women who ate the traditional rice.

"Although this sounds like a modest increase," commented Haas in a Cornell press release, "it means that instead of 50 percent of women getting adequate iron, 71 percent of the women who consumed the biofortified rice, while eating a traditional Philippine diet, met the estimated average requirement for iron."

Adds a hopeful Murray-Kolb, "Biofortified varieties of other staple crops, such as cassava, wheat and sweet potatoes, are being developed. Ours was part of a much larger, global effort to test the efficacy of these new crops. We have a common goal: To end the preventable health problems caused by nutritional deficiencies in the developing world."

Laura E. Murray-Kolb, Ph.D., is a National Institute of Mental Health
post-doctoral fellow in psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts; lem118@psu.edu.
John Beard, Ph.D., is professor of nutrition in the College of Health and Human Development; jbeard@psu.edu.

This study was reported in the The Journal of Nutrition in December 2005. The biofortified rice used was developed by the International Rice Research Institute, one of whose major sponsors is HarvestPlus, an international, interdisciplinary research program that collaborates with universities and agencies to reduce micronutrient malnutrition by breeding nutrient-dense staple foods.

Last Updated December 11, 2006