Get insights into the work we are doing to help alleviate the world’s greatest micronutrient deficiency, and learn what can you do to reduce your risk.
Image of a researcher standing in front of scientific equipment.
CSIRO and University of Melbourne PhD candidate, Yianna Zhang, with the highly accurate analytical instrument used to quantify iron content in foods located at the UoM TrACEES platform.

Imagine waking up fatigued each morning. You feel weak, irritable and find yourself running out of breath doing the simplest of activities like walking. These are only a few of the symptoms of iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency is the major micronutrient deficiency affecting more than two billion people worldwide, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Overall, treatment of iron deficiency is inadequate worldwide, especially in women and children. Unless treated at some point, the cycle of iron deficiency can continue from mother to child, especially as the requirement for iron is greatest around birth.

Iron is vital to all living organisms. It is an important element in multiple proteins and is responsible for a variety of biological functions in our bodies. Functions like making energy, transporting oxygen, and growing cells. But, it can be hard work to get enough iron in your diet!

What can we do to reduce our risk of iron deficiency?

One way is to consume a diverse and balanced diet containing meats and other nutrient-dense whole foods. These typically ward off iron deficiency in generally healthy people.

This is because many animal-derived foods contain iron in a form that our bodies can easily absorb.  For example, the hemoglobin protein in meat and seafood.

Plant-based foods also contain iron. This includes unprocessed whole grains, nuts, and some vegetables. Our bodies do not readily absorb these types of iron though. Populations who live on traditional plant-based diets – or who have a low intake of animal-derived foods – can have limited iron absorption. This is also the case for those with a limited intake of animal-derived foods.

So how do we give plant-based iron a boost? We can eat it with foods that help absorption, including animal-derived proteins, or with foods high in vitamin C. Capsicum, tomato, kiwi fruit, and citrus fruits are all great examples.

We can also supplement foods with additional iron. For example, food staples such as wheat flours, cereal, and bread can be fortified with synthetic mineral salts of iron. But depending on the food the iron is fortified into, iron absorption may not be enhanced. That’s where our research comes in.

If you have any questions about your iron intake, speak to a GP or accredited practising dietitian.

An image of a plate of different types of foods.
Plant-based foods alone aren’t always enough as our bodies more readily absorb the iron in animal-derived foods. Image credit: Vanessa Loring from Pexels.

Helping combat iron deficiency one stock cube at a time

We’re contributing to a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative to fortify bouillon stock cubes with iron and other essential micronutrients for consumption in Central and West Africa. Bouillon is consumed daily across all age and socio-economic groups, making them a great vehicle for micronutrient delivery in that region.

There are some technical challenges in fortifying bouillon with micronutrients, which we’re working on overcoming. This involves identifying and testing innovative micronutrient technologies to help develop a multi-fortified formulation for a range of bouillon varieties.

Working with national research organisations, universities and industries around the world, we aim to break the multigenerational effects and incidence of iron and other micronutrient deficiencies in Central and West Africa.

Power plant: fighting iron deficiency with legume proteins

Another thing we’re doing is modifying legume proteins to enhance their potential to assist with iron absorption.

Proteins are made up of peptides, which in turn are composed of amino acids. Certain chains of amino acids can carry iron in a form that is bioavailable to the body. Some of these iron-carrying peptides occur naturally in foods, such as the heme proteins in meat, and certain whey proteins from dairy products.

We can create these iron-binding peptides with traditional food processing methods used on legume proteins, such as fermentation and enzymes. By finding the right protein mixtures that can bind to iron, we can then test their effectiveness at enhancing iron absorption in the digestive tract. We examine how soluble iron is at the major site of absorption within the gastrointestinal tract, and whether this iron could be absorbed by intestinal cells.

We are in the process of identifying the composition and structure of these peptides. To do this we first separate them from the other, non-iron carrying food proteins by using specialised chemistry tech (chromatography and mass spectrometry, to be exact).

Although this research – and our related work on zinc and calcium bioavailability in legume protein products – are still in the very early stages, it has the potential to improve the food nutrient status of Australians and beyond.

There is currently a booming global demand for different types of proteins, especially those that bring specific health benefits. This demand is increasing as our global population grows. Our Future Protein Mission aims to build sovereign manufacturing capability and grow Australia’s protein industry by $10 billion by 2030. One way we’re achieving this is by delivering protein products with differentiated health-enhancing effects.

8 comments

  1. Hemochromatosis runs in my family and I carry the hemochromatosis gene. Iron deficiency is something that shouldn’t be self diagnosed.

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