Iron is a vital component of good human health. It’s used for oxygen transport and a lack of iron (a deficiency) results in fatigue and a decreased ability to fight illness. Iron is incredibly abundant on our planet – one of the most common metals that exist – but it is still lacking in many childhood diets in developing worlds. Given that our society always has a keen interest in protecting the health of our young, there has been a great deal of research into combating this nutritional problem. Scientists from the Netherlands write in the medical journal Lancet that iron deficiency affects about 50% of children in the developing world.
The core reason for this problem is that most diets in these poorer countries are heavily cereal based. These cereals contain a large amount of phytic acid, which have phosphorus atoms that act as a chelating agent for naturally occurring minerals such as iron. In chemistry, a chelating agent is a flexible molecule that “wraps” around a metal atom, helping it to become soluble in water. Unfortunately, humans are not born with the correct enzyme to digest the phytic molecule and so these naturally occuring “wrapped” (chelated) iron atoms present in cereals also cannot be digested. The result is a large spike in iron deficiency health problems. To try and combat this, many health organizations add powdered iron dust to flour, in hopes of increasing the amount of iron in the diet of the children. As you might guess however, iron metal particles aren’t particularly easy to digest, and so this addition to flour – while well intended – has essentially no effect.
Netherland chemists have reported that they have developed a new nutritional supplement that is low cost and can be added to flour. It consists of iron metal that has been wrapped with / chelated to a molecule known as EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). This molecule surrounds the iron atom and makes it soluble in water, so that it can be digested. Tests ran in Kenya on school children reveal that when comparing bland porridge with EDTA-Fe porridge, along with Fe-dust porridge, the children eating the new EDTA-chelated iron supplement had a vast reduction in iron deficiency health problems (90%) over five months.
This result is important because as much as we in the United States might want to pretend otherwise, a great deal of people in the world (a major percentage of them children) are hungry and hurting every day. Scientific decisions such as which nutritional supplement to use should not be left in the hands of the politicians, else we end up with flour mixed with iron dust that has a shorter shelf life, is bad tasting, and does absolutely nothing to address the problem. Chemists need to continually apply their knowledge of science to the problems that the “real world” is facing. The results of just a simple experiment – such as this iron:EDTA chelation – can change the lives of many people.
“Efficacy of iron-fortified whole maize flour on iron status of school children in Kenya: a randomized controlled trial”.
Pauline EA Andang’o MSc, Saskia JM Osendarp PhD, Rosemary Ayah PhD, Prof Clive E West PhD, David L Mwaniki PhD, Corine A De Wolf PhD.
The Lancet medical journal.