A new approach to malnutrition in the developing world could change the way we think about vitamin and mineral supplements. By changing the coating of vital micronutrients, scientists and philanthropists hope to stop the preventable devastation of blindness, birth defects, and more.
Health experts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find ways to repackage supplements to make them more stable and useful in the developing world. After considering more than 50 kinds of polymer coatings, researchers settled on BMC, a previously FDA-approved food additive already widespread in American foods.
Scientists did this to combat the instability of current supplements, which use additives like proteins and sugars to encapsulate the micronutrients they carry. Additives like this don’t hold up in boiling water, the journal Science reports.
The BMC polymer has been tested on a variety of nutrients, including zinc, iron, and vitamins A and D. Lab testing, including mice trials, showed these substances could withstand boiling for two hours straight before breaking down on contact with stomach acids.
These trials were followed by human trials of BMC-coated micronutrients. The first trial went poorly, with tests showing that people who ate the polymer-fortified maize porridge absorbed less than half the iron sulfate as others who ate from foods supplemented with unencapsulated nutrients. After retooling the polymer formula, the next test showed nearly identical nutrient absorption between people eating both encapsulated and unencapsulated iron.
The first large-scale use of this new technology may take the form of soup. Researchers are currently engaged in talks with food companies to possibly produce fortified bouillon cubes and similar offerings.
While most people in developed nations have no significant nutrition deficiencies, malnutrition remains a serious problem in less developed parts of the world. This is the cause of death for an estimated 45% of children under age 5 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Malnutrition has several potential signs and symptoms, according to MedicineNet medical author and editor Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD.
“In cases of undernutrition, children may show slow growth, failure to thrive, developmental delays, behavioral changes (including decreased attention), and muscle wasting,” Dr. Stöppler said. “Tiredness, fatigue, slow wound healing, and even loss of appetite may occur.”
People with low incomes or poor access to food may be hit harder than others by malnutrition, Dr. Stöppler said. Other malnutrition symptoms and signs include: