Bio-fortification could make crops more nutritious: researcher

USDA Agricultural Research Service student interns Alison Coomer and Marco Gutierrez examine wheat plants in the greenhouse at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus where scientists are looking at bio-fortifying wheat and other crops.  |  USDA/Bob Garybosch photo

What the heck is ferrous sulfate?

Clean labels were a massive trend in 2017 and may be the new norm in North American’s food industry.

Many consumers want to buy food with ingredients that they recognize and trust, so if they see words like “ferrous sulfate” on a label, they don’t want it, even if it’s good for them.

“If you look at a label on a bread product you’ll see fortified with ferrous sulfate,” said Bob Graybosch, a research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Neb.

“Well, that’s just iron. But if you haven’t had a chemistry class, you really don’t know what ferrous sulfate is.”

That’s one of the reasons why Graybosch and hundreds of other scientists around the globe are studying bio-fortification, which is a method to improve the nutritional quality in food.

Instead of adding nutrients to processed food, the idea behind bio-fortification is to improve the levels of minerals and vitamins in grain and other crops, through plant breeding, better agronomy or biotechnology.

In the West, bio-fortification could placate consumers who are worried about weird ingredients in their food, but it is playing a much more important role in Africa and South Asia, where hundreds of millions of people don’t get enough minerals and vitamins from a grain-based diet.

“There is a huge deficiency of vitamin A, iron and zinc around the world,” said Natalia Palacios, maize nutritional quality specialist at CIMMYT, the international maize and wheat improvement centre.

Research shows that iron deficiency, for example, effects growth and development in children.

A lack of vitamin A can cause eyesight problems or blindness.

CGIAR, a global organization dedicated to food security that operates the maize and wheat improvement centre and other research centres around the world, also has a division called Harvest­Plus, which is dedicated to improving nutrition and human health through bio-fortification.

“Bio-fortified crops are in testing in over 60 countries, 7.5 million households are growing bio-fortified crops, and over 35 million household members are consuming them,” Wolfgang Pfeiffer, director of research and development at HarvestPlus, said on CGIAR’s website.

Pfeiffer said a number of bio-fortified crops are being grown and consumed in undeveloped regions, including sweet potatoes with vitamin A in Africa and millet bio-fortified with iron and zinc in India.

Three pioneers who pushed for bio-fortification over the last 25 years received the World Food Prize in 2016. One of the winners was Howarth Bouis, who founded HarvestPlus.

Bio-fortification seems like a logical strategy to address malnutrition in the undeveloped world, but does it have a role in Europe, the United States and Canada?

Do Canadians need more iron, zinc and vitamin A in their diet?

“A fair number (of people), especially women, can be iron-deficient in the developed world,” said Graybosch, who added that vegans and vegetarians may also lack iron in their diet.

Graybosch and his USDA colleagues have identified genetics in wheat that could pump up the amount of minerals delivered by a serving of cereal or bread.

“In the case of the mutations that we’re studying … we found a mutation that reduced the phytic acid but did not eliminate it,” he said.

Phytic acid, or phytate, is an anti-nutrient that can prevent the body from taking in minerals.

“(Introduction) into Great Plains winter wheat materials can improve … (zinc, calcium and iron) concentrations without reducing grain yield and … provide more nutritious wheat kernels,” their research paper says.

It will be years before varieties are developed and the bio-fortified wheat is grown in North America.

As well, there’s no guarantee that Americans or Canadians want to eat bio-fortified wheat.

Nonetheless, Graybosch believes a market does exist.

“If a company could come out with a product … where iron is naturally increased … and this is good for you, they might sell the product,” he said.

“It’s a competitive market, and (companies) are always looking for an edge.”

Of course, adding ferrous sulfate is also a way to improve iron content in bread, crackers and pizza crust, but many consumers now reject that idea.

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