IOWA STATE (US)—Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most serious causes of malnutrition in developing countries, resulting in blindness, poor immune function, and even premature death—particularly in young children.

Beta-carotene in corn converts to vitamin A at a higher rate when compared to other vegetables, including spinach and carrots, so corn bred to contain increased levels of the vitamin is expected to be an effective tool to combat the deficiency.

“Biofortification is a revolutionary approach to combating micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries and it has the potential to be self-sustaining,” says Wendy White, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.

“The seeds are bred by plant breeders to be naturally high in key micronutrients, such as vitamin A, zinc, and/or iron. And then the seeds will ultimately be distributed to poor farmers in developing countries and they’ll be able to reproduce the seeds so they can share them with their communities.

“This study answered a major feasibility concern for the biofortification program because plant breeders were quickly successful in ramping up the beta-carotene content in the corn, but then the question was, ‘Would it be available to be absorbed and utilized by people?,’” she continues.

“So what we’ve shown is the beta-carotene is bioavailable to be converted to vitamin A in the body, and much more so than previously expected.”

The study is available online by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

For the study, six healthy female subjects, between the ages of 18 and 30, consumed 250-gram portions of maize porridge three times at two-week intervals.

Each subject consumed the beta-carotene biofortified maize porridge, as well as two white maize control porridges that were naturally devoid of beta-carotene, but contained known amounts of added beta-carotene or vitamin A. Blood samples were drawn after they ate each porridge to determine the amount of vitamin A that was absorbed in the blood.

White says the study’s findings provide an important step in the process of making the biofortified corn available to the people who desperately need vitamin A in their diets.

“These [their subjects] were mostly graduate students based in the U.S. who were screened for excellent health. So this study was conducted under ideal conditions. So the next step—knowing that under ideal conditions the beta-carotene can be well absorbed—is to take it into a more field setting.”

There is already a pilot program being conducted in Zambia to feed the beta-carotene, biofortified maize to young children to increase their vitamin A intake. HarvestPlus is conducting that project and supported the development of the maize for the Iowa State study.

The effort to biofortify corn with beta-carotene is being led by HarvestPlus, a global research initiative directed, in part, by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, launched with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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