Pioneering nanotechnology research to enrich the iron content of potatoes could result in a range of fortified crops, according to researchers at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.
The scientists have developed a novel – and natural – way of enriching potatoes with iron by engineering ‘nano-rust’ particles, which can be broken down into regular iron and absorbed by potatoes. This boosts their iron content and could help to supply the element to anaemia suffers.
A university spokesman told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “We’re looking to see how far we can push the iron fortification process and investigating other trace minerals that could be taken up by the potatoes. We are also investigating using this technology in other crops such as rice.”
The research team has been able to boost the iron concentration of potatoes by 20%. Further increases may be possible, thanks to continued research with the British Potato Council.
So far, the researchers have focused on applying the nano-rust particles by hydroponics − in order to eliminate environmental factors. But eventually, they envisage adding it to fertiliser treatments.
Also, the uptake of iron upon consumption could be significantly higher than that achieved through iron supplements, or via the consumption of processed foods such as breakfast cereals, said the researchers. Breakfast cereals pass only about 10% of available iron into the body.
Dr Gareth Cave, researcher and an expert in nanoscience and food fortification at Nottingham Trent University, said: “People have been looking for a way to get more iron into diets for some time and this could be the ideal solution.”
Iron deficiency anaemia
He added: “If farmers were to start incorporating this into their potatoes then it could be a major step forward in tackling iron deficiency anaemia. As well as the additional iron, we have found that the potatoes have retained all their typical nutritional elements. This would be a far cheaper alternative than vitamin tablets, and could be explored for other elements such as calcium and selenium. It’s also an alternative to genetically modified channels.”
The researchers also discovered that nano-treated potatoes grow faster and bigger than non-treated ones.
In addition to potatoes, there are plans to study if rice can be fortified with iron by the same process. That could help to remedy the problem of iron deficiency in eastern diets.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s population suffers from anaemia, according to estimates from the World Health Organisation. Half of such cases are caused by iron deficiency anaemia.
Iron deficiency is a big challenge in many countries due to its low levels in staple foods such as potatoes, rice and wheat.
The rising cost of iron-rich foods − such as meat and fish − is exacerbating the problem, as cash-strapped western consumers switch to less nutritious and iron-deficient diet.
Iron deficiency has also been identified as a significant health risk for some vegetarians.
The main symptoms of anaemia are tiredness and lethargy. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, pale complexion and dry nails.