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Biofortified, Iron-rich Rice Improves The Nutrition of Women

Armen Hareyan's picture

Nutrition Deficiency Improvement

Plant breeding can boost the level of micronutrients in rice and improve the nutritional status of people who eat the grains by as much as 20 percent, according to research reported in the December 2005 issue of The Journal of Nutrition.

This study shows that developing new varieties of staple foods, such as rice, maize, sweet potato, wheat, beans and cassava, by selectively breeding to enhance nutritional qualities, has merit for reducing micronutrient deficiencies in the developing world, said Jere Haas, Cornell professor of maternal and child nutrition and the study's lead author. The team includes Penn State researchers John L. Beard, professor of nutritional sciences, and Laura Murray-Kolb, a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellow in child development at Penn State.

"The value of these findings is that biofortified rice that is bred to be higher in iron and zinc has great potential as a sustainable approach to reducing the micronutrient deficiency problems so common in developing countries," Haas said.

The multi-institutional collaborative study was the first to test whether nutritional status can be improved in people who eat foods that have been bred for higher-than-normal concentrations of micronutrients. In a nine-month, double-blind study conducted with Philippine religious sisters, the iron status of the women who ate biofortified, iron-rich rice was 20 percent higher than in women who ate traditional rice.

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Other co-authors are Angelina Felix and the late Angelita del Mundo, University of the Philippines/Los Banos, and Glenn Gregorio of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

Lack of iron is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world, afflicting more than 3.5 billion people, particularly in developing countries. "It is estimated that about 56 percent of women in developing countries are anemic due mostly to iron deficiency," said Haas. Many people in developing countries cannot afford, or do not have, access to commercially fortified foods, compared with people in industrialized countries who commonly consume foods fortified with vitamins and minerals.

The biofortified rice was developed by IRRI in the Philippines. One of its major sponsors is HarvestPlus, an international, interdisciplinary research program that collaborates with Cornell and other universities and agencies to reduce micronutrient malnutrition by breeding nutrient-dense staple foods. One of the first crops to be biofortified under this initiative is rice, which is a staple food of some 3 billion people, many of them among the world's poorest.

Now that researchers know that the biofortified rice can actually improve the nutritional status of people who eat it under controlled experimental conditions, follow-up studies will not only seek to confirm these findings but also will look at how well the rice is accepted by the general population, Haas said.

Other HarvestPlus sponsored researchers are also investigating the feasibility of fortifying food crops with other micronutrients such as zinc and vitamin A. Although researchers at Cornell were not involved in the development of the biofortified rice, they are actively involved in developing disease-, drought and pest-resistant as well as higher-yield rice varieties.