The World Health Organization (WHO) had earlier identified iron deficiency as one of the more common nutrition-related illnesses in the world. Taking their cue from that declaration, research conducted by the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) has, for the first time, suggested that iron absorption can be intensified using non-meat dietary sources, as an aid to overcome incidences of illnesses related to iron-deficiencies.
The new study, recorded in the journal Nutrition and published by the American Society for Nutrition, had lead scientist Elizabeth Theil and her colleagues suggest an alternate mechanism for the absorption of ferritin, a large, protein-coated iron mineral found abundantly in legumes and dried seeds. They also proved the mechanism for iron absorption of small iron complexes such as those found in iron supplements.
The study could be a boon for vegetarians looking to incorporate more legume-based nutrients in their diet. Moreover, an advantage of Theil's discovery is that the utilization of iron absorption techniques from vegetables and legumes is also seen as an important means of solving global iron deficiency diseases via an affordable and readily available source of iron.
Our study shows that this different mechanism of iron absorption from plant ferritin is more efficient and gives the intestinal cells more control. It can be a new way to help solve global iron deficiency, said Theil.
The study noted that iron deficiency was common in both developing and non-developing nations around the world. In addition, while traditional treatments would mean consuming iron supplements and increasing meat consumption, these approaches do have significant limitations.
The frequent consumption of iron supplements can cause side-effects such as gas and bloating, leading to inconsistent consumption of these pills. Furthermore, meat consumption could be a taboo for some cultures and in certain global communities where meat is scarce, consumption is reserved only for the men while women and children remain deprived. Not surprisingly, iron deficient diseases are more rampant amongst growing children and women of child-bearing age.
The study explained that the discovery of an alternative and highly efficient mechanism for iron absorption is also safer, as it causes less irritation to the intestines, which is the central organ for absorption of iron as ferritin.
What these studies show together is that during digestion, ferritin is not converted from its large, mineral complex, which contains a thousand iron atoms, to individual iron atoms like those found in many iron supplements, explained Theil, adding, Instead, ferritin iron is absorbed in its protein-coated, iron mineral form by a different, independent mechanism; iron absorbed as ferritin, leaves the intestine more slowly, but may, provide greater safety to the intestines than iron supplements.
The new study combined results of two different experiments - one conducted in humans and the other using rats to model humans. In the rat model, portions of the rat intestines were bathed with solutions of traceable iron, either as a typical type of iron supplement or as ferritin. Measurements showed that both the large ferritin and the smaller iron complex were absorbed through the intestine.
In the human study, traceable iron in ferritin was consumed by volunteers with a 9:1 ratio of unlabelled, non-meat iron dietary supplement or with hemoglobin, with the type of heme iron in meat, to see if the two types of iron competed with ferritin iron for the same absorption mechanism. In each case, the iron competitor had no effect on the iron absorption from ferritin.
The study observed that the iron found in meat and non-meat iron supplements enters the intestine from food; one iron atom at a time. Each step utilizes energy in the intestinal cells. When the intestine takes in a single molecule of ferritin, however, it gets a thousand atoms inside that one ferritin molecule, making iron absorption that much more efficient.