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One serious consequence of today’s rising food prices is people reducing their consumption of more nutritious foods, such as fresh meat and vegetables, leading to an increase in micronutrient malnutrition. This "hidden hunger" is insidious because it is not readily observable, but has serious health and nutritional consequences.
In the UK, scientists from Rothamsted Research and Diamond Light Source have devised a technique that allows them to pinpoint the exact location of multiple essential nutrients such as iron and zinc simultaneously in wheat grains. The technique, which involves exposing grain to extremely bright x-rays at Diamond in Oxfordshire, offers hope for the acceleration of attempts at wheat biofortification, which can be used to increase the iron and zinc content of wheat products.
Dr Andrew Neal, the scientist leading the investigations, explains, "Micronutrient malnutrition is a serious health problem world-wide. Unfortunately high-yield, semi-dwarf, strains of wheat introduced over the last 40 years may have resulted in an appreciable decrease in concentrations of micronutrients found in our grain. Here at Rothamsted Research together with colleagues both here in the UK and abroad, we are studying newly developed lines of wheat in which the naturally occurring iron-storage protein, ferritin is produced at higher levels than currently grown strains. As a result, these new strains contain a much higher iron content."
|Iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn) distributions in wheat grain sections. Copyright Dr Neal, Rothamsted Research|
"At Diamond, we are now able to discover the chemical composition of the wheat, which will enable us to establish whether the nutrients are readily digestible and can offer enhanced nutritional value to people’s staple diets. If successful, the new lines could be made available to farmers globally as a cost-effective means of tackling "hidden hunger", one that is within the economic reach of the world’s poorest."
Dr Paul Quinn, scientist at Diamond working with Andrew on the project adds, "More work is still required before we can completely establish the chemistry and distribution of essential nutrients in these new lines. But, what is so exciting about these experiments is that, for the
first time, we are able to study the chemistry and distribution of a number of elements at the same time within a complete grain. Previously milled fractions of wheat were used, destroying its structure, and results were laborious and limited to establishing an average metal content within the grains."
At present, using available wheat strains, most of the nutrients are lost from white flour because they are only present in the bran layer. Increasing the nutrient content of white flour would significantly improve the diet of a large proportion of the population, providing a powerful weapon in the fight against "hidden hunger".
More than half the world's population —mostly poor people in developing countries—suffer from micronutrient malnutrition*. The deficiency first received worldwide attention back in the early 1990s. Caused by a lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet, it can leave children blind, lower their IQ several points, and make them targets for an onslaught of illnesses that can linger through adulthood, and to an early grave. "Hidden hunger" affects health but also compromises socioeconomic development, learning ability and productivity.
* Source: HarvestPlus
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Notes to Editors
Rothamsted Research is based in Hertfordshire and is one of the largest agricultural research institutes in the country. It is sponsored by the BBSRC. (www.rothamsted.ac.uk).
For further information, please contact the Rothamsted Research Press Office Tel: 01582 763133 ext 2757 or email Dr Susannah Bolton (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Diamond Light Source is the UK's national synchrotron science facility, located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.
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