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Pump up the iron: how to win over hidden hunger with whole grains

Photo: C. de Bode (CGIAR) / Flickr.

We often use the expression “You are what you eat”, but in reality, we don’t absorb everything from our food.  Our bodies have a way to move nutrients and minerals, ensuring that we absorb just the amount we need and get rid of the surplus that, if accumulated, can be harmful.

Our capacity to absorb minerals depends on their form when we ingest them. For example, many foods contain iron organically, compared to dietary supplements and fortification powders where iron is present in inorganic form. Our intestines have difficulty absorbing inorganic iron. It is also important to point out that our meals contain several nutrients at the same time and that those interact with each other. For example, copper and zinc compete with iron, but vitamin C and vitamin A will stimulate its absorption.

How to get enough iron?

Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. Pregnant women and growing children are especially susceptible to this type of deficiency. If an infant lacks iron it can lead to poorer cognitive and socio-emotional functions later in life. Iron deficiency can lead to heart problems, weak immune system as well as complications during pregnancy.

Generally, it’s easier for us to absorb iron from animal-based foods than from plant-based. Vitamin C helps us to absorb iron, while inhibitory factors and anti-nutrients (natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients) like tannins and phytate work in reverse.

Whole grains with a high amount of minerals also contain high amount of phytic acid. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient with a strong binding affinity to dietary minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Phytic acid binds minerals, forming chemical compounds called insoluble precipitates, which our gut cannot absorb. However, the food industry can reduce the presence of anti-nutrients in whole grains with adequate treatment and produce food products high in minerals.

Learn more about these techniques in our online training about improving the value chains of traditional grains from farm to table.


Image: Inclusive Business Sweden.

Usually, our body can absorb up to 25% of iron from a meat-based meal. Meanwhile, the absorption of iron from vegetables is usually between 5-10%, but it can be up to 25% (same as meat) if a meal is based on whole grains and pulses that have gone through hydrothermal treatment or fermentation.

Surprisingly, the absorption of iron from fortified food is as low as 2-3%. Additionally, it is very important to point out that refined grains lose 85% of their original micronutrient content during processing, making their iron content extremely low and insufficient for a healthy diet.

Thus, we need to eat a diverse diet and avoid processed and refined foods to obtain a sufficient amount of iron to stay healthy. For many people in low-income countries, iron absorption can be as low as 5%. This is mainly because of reliance on staple foods with high levels of anti-nutrients or refined and processed foods with low nutritional value and inadequate dietary diversity in general. However, iron deficiency is present in high-income countries too. For example, in Sweden, up to 40% of girls and 15% of boys suffer from iron deficiency.

How can business help to reduce iron deficiency?

Adding iron salts to meet national nutritional standards is a common food industry practice. It is done to counteract low iron values in food that is based on refined grains or whole grains with low availability of iron.

While this could help to address acute malnutrition in vulnerable groups, the focus should turn from eating refined grains to consuming more wholegrain foods. Whole grains are nutrient-rich and when combined with pulses, vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy products, can replace animal-based products as our main source of nutritious food. Additionally, whole grains are also high in fiber, which makes them a superior source of diversified nutrients for a healthy and sustainable diet.

However, whole grains are as rich in nutrients as they are in anti-nutrients, which limits positive nutritional effects. Correct processing of whole grains can counteract that and bring out the full nutritional potential. If whole grains are not treated (for example soaked, fermented or sprouted) before they are used to produce food products such as whole grain bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, etc. availability of iron can be as low as 1-5%. Research has shown that processing whole grains using hydrothermal techniques can reduce the anti-nutrients by up to 90% and increase iron availability up to 25%.

Our Expert Group has prepared an online training that explains how hidden hunger is linked to our diets and how food companies can produce nutrient-rich products using inexpensive hydrothermal processes.