Having attended the Federation of European Nutrition Societies Conference in Belgrade, Serbia, one theme that appeared to continually crop up was low iron intakes, especially amongst women of reproductive age.
A new trend?
No, this is not new. In 2010 with fellow co-authors, I wrote a publication in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology – “Iron-deficiency – is there a role for the food industry?”. The article explained how iron deficiency was one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies worldwide, with underpinning aetiology being attributed to many different factors – low iron intakes, poor absorption, disease states, parasitic infections, and certain life-stages (reproductive age and pregnancy) placing strains on iron levels.
The article went on to explain that consequences of dietary iron shortfalls can be wide-ranging. Reduced cognitive (mental) performance, poor pregnancy outcomes such as higher rates of preterm deliveries, reduced intrauterine growth and iron deficiency in the offspring are some implications.
Why the renewed interest?
Well, the movement towards plant-based diets has bought this long-term concern to a renewed forefront of interest.
A meta-analysis paper published in Nutrients journal pooling data from 141 studies mainly from America, Europe and East/South Asia found that iron intakes and status were generally lower amongst those following plant-based dietary patterns in comparison to meat-consumers.
What can be done?
Well, as explained in our publication back in 2010 strategies such as soaking beans and lentils which can help to remove phytic acid which can bind and reduce iron absorption.
Drinking orange juice with iron-rich foods may go some way towards improving the amount of iron that is absorbed.
Improving iron bioavailability by adding enzymes such as phytase to foods is another way forward, as we did when we developed a teff bread providing iron.
Fortificants are another way forward, although off-flavours and colour changes can occur in some foods, so a level of experimentation is needed. Foods fortified also need to bear the target population in mind.