The humble potato could hold the answer to tackling the common condition iron deficiency anaemia, scientists believe. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University have been successful in developing 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 the crop.
The World Health Organization estimates that anaemia affects almost a quarter of the world’s population, with half of these cases caused by iron deficiency anaemia.
Iron deficiency is a major problem in many countries due to its low levels in staple foods such as potatoes, rice and wheat.
The research team has been able to vastly increase the iron concentration of potatoes. And 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, which only pass about 10% of available iron into the body.
The problem of anaemia is thought to be getting worse because iron-rich foods such as meat and fish are becoming more expensive, triggering a less nutritious and iron-deficient diet among many western people. Iron deficiency can also be an issue for some vegetarians.
The researchers have been able to fortify the potatoes with iron by covering the nano-rust particles in a stealth-like coating which ‘tricks’ the plantlets into absorbing the particles into the roots before breaking them down into iron.
They now plan to test if rice can be fortified with iron via the same process, which could potentially address iron deficiency in eastern diets.
“People have been looking for a way to get more iron into diets for some time and this could be the ideal solution,” said Dr Gareth Cave, researcher and an expert in nanoscience and food fortification in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.
He said: “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.”
Iron is used by the body to make haemoglobin, which helps store and carry oxygen in red blood cells. If there is a lack of iron in the blood, organs and tissue will not get as much oxygen as they usually do and this can lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
The main symptoms are tiredness and lethargy, but other symptoms include shortness of breath and changes in appearance such as a pale complexion and dry nails.
As well as increasing the iron content, the researchers have also found that the potatoes were growing faster and bigger.
To try to understand why this might be happening they are about to embark on a project with the Potato Council with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for an Industrial CASE studentship.