Cornell, Oxford to lead grants aimed at boosting iron nutrition

To boost nutrition around the world by increasing iron and zinc absorption for millions of people in developing countries, Cornell’s Department of Food Science – in an international, multi-institutional collaborative effort with the University of Oxford, England – will receive a combined $7.6 million in two grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One grant will study how encapsulated phytase, a natural enzyme that breaks down phytic acid, may help the human body digest dietary iron and zinc. The other grant will examine how the protein lactoferrin – a novel protein found in human and cow’s milk – may help improve the intestinal absorption of iron while also refining the safety of iron fortification.

“Anemia – the lack of iron in human blood – is a serious global public health problem,” said Alireza Abbaspourrad, the Youngkeun Joh Associate Professor of Food Chemistry and Ingredient Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Anemia affects young children and pregnant women, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.”

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 40% of children under the age of 5 and about 40% of pregnant women around the world are anemic, as a lack of iron in the diet is a major cause of anemia.

“With the vision to reduce malnutrition in children and women in these countries, we will focus on these important innovations to increase the amount of iron and zinc that can be absorbed from the foods that we eat – which is especially important to the world’s most vulnerable populations,” Abbaspourrad said.

Abbaspourrad is the principal investigator of the $4 million encapsulated phytase grant. He will receive $1.6 million to conduct research and disburse the remainder to the University of Oxford; North-West University of South Africa; ETH Zurich, Switzerland; Sight and Life, a humanitarian nutrition think tank; and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Michael Zimmerman of the University of Oxford is the principal investigator of the $3.6 million lactoferrin research grant. Of that, Oxford will disburse $1.2 million to Cornell and the remaining amount to other subcontracted institutions.

In many developing countries, diets are mostly cereal-based – with foods such as wheat or maize – which have a high amount of phytic acid that inhibits the absorption of critical nutrients inside the body.

As the nutritional elements in the food degrade, the health benefits are lost, according to Younas Dadmohammadi, a research associate in the Abbaspourrad Lab.

Minerals like iron and zinc do not degrade, but instead they are sequestered by phytate and are not available for absorption.

The Cornell researchers hope to develop heat-resistant nano- or micro-capsules of phytase that are stable enough to withstand the cooking process and can resist digestion at gastric pH – to reduce the presence of phytic acid and free the iron and zinc for absorption once inside the body.

The University of Oxford team will explore the feasibility of co-encapsulating lactoferrin and iron in a thermostable structure that resists breakdown in cooking. The intent is to release it in in the small intestine to maximize absorption and improve safety for gut health.

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