Washington, D.C.— Consuming beans that are bred to contain higher levels of iron reduces iron deficiency and enhances cognitive performance of iron-deficient women, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition.

For 18 weeks, 150 female Rwandan college students ate two meals with iron-biofortified beans per day and realized significant benefits. The iron-biofortified beans were developed using conventional plant breeding to contain almost twice as much iron as common varieties. As the iron status of these women improved, so did their memory and attention capacity — both critical for reaching their full potential in the classroom and in life.

In Rwanda, nearly one in five women are anemic, and approximately 33 percent of anemia in sub-Saharan Africa results from iron-deficiency.

“Biofortification holds huge promise, especially in areas that are difficult to reach with fortification or where supplements can’t be afforded or adequately stored,” said Laura Murray-Kolb, Associate Professor at Penn State University and lead author of the study. “Research in my lab focuses on women of reproductive age because their health is so integral for their own wellbeing as well as for their child’s life and development.”

Beans are commonly eaten as a part of almost every meal in Rwanda. Scaling up iron-biofortified beans can improve health in the region and in populations elsewhere that similarly consume beans, without changing eating patterns.

“The encouraging findings of the Rwandan study further confirm that biofortified foods can break the intergenerational anemia-poor school performance-low productivity cycle,” said Erick Boy, Head of Nutrition at HarvestPlus. “Improving women’s health and their ability to succeed at school and at work positively impacts their daily lives and the lives of their future children.”

HarvestPlus is promoting iron-biofortified beans, as well as other biofortified staple crops, in several countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. More than 1 million farming households have adopted these more nutritious beans, which also boast other desired agronomic traits, such as high yields, disease resistance and drought tolerance.

“This is a clear example of how agriculture and nutrition need to work together to improve quality of life,” said Steve Beebe, leader of the bean research program at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “In this vein, high-iron beans are a superfood of our time. They address iron-deficiency anemia — a serious health and nutritional issue that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world — and aid memory retention and learning. These high-yielding beans are also great for farmers in the tropics as they can tolerate periodic drought.”

Journal Articles:
Cognitive improvements in Rwandan women after consumption of iron-biofortified beans, findings from an 18-week randomized controlled efficacy trial, Journal of Nutrition
Laura E. Murray-Kolb, Michael J. Wenger, Samuel P. Scott, Stephanie E. Rhoten, Mercy G. Lung’aho, Jere D. Haas

Consuming Iron Biofortified Beans Increases Iron Status in Rwandan Women after 128 Days in a Randomized Controlled Feeding Trial, Journal of Nutrition
Jere D. Haas, Sarah V. Luna, Mercy G. Lung’aho, Michael J. Wenger 6 Laura E. Murray-Kolb, Stephen Beebe, Jean-Bosco Gahutu, and Ines M. Egli