Today, more than two billion people worldwide suffer from hidden hunger, a form of undernutrition caused by a lack of essential vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, in the diet. Micronutrient deficiencies can lead to poor health and development in children and constrain normal physical and mental function in adults. Biofortification of staple crops is a sustainable and practical strategy for overcoming hidden hunger.
Iron deficiency is one of the most detrimental forms of undernutrition and the leading cause of anemia, impaired motor and cognitive development, and premature births. Iron deficiency anemia affects more than two billion people worldwide, particularly women and young children. In Latin America, more than 57 million people suffer from iron deficiency. For rural communities in highland regions of Latin America, where potatoes are not only the backbone of agriculture, but a staple crop and consumed daily, biofortified potatoes offer a solution to efficiently, cost-effectively, and sustainably deliver iron to farming families.
For nearly two decades, researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center (CIP) have been working to conventionally breed varieties of iron biofortified potatoes. A study published April 2023 in The Journal of Nutrition compared the iron absorption in women who ate meals prepared from either iron biofortified or non-biofortified yellow-fleshed potatoes. The study found that total iron absorption from the iron biofortified potato variety was 45.8% higher than a non-biofortified commercial potato variety.
In the rural highlands of Peru, anemia is a common affliction amongst smallholder farmers and their families. Nearly half of all children under the age of three suffer from anemia, as do 20% of women of child-bearing age. While iron absorption is dependent on several factors, the study found that iron biofortified potatoes could significantly contribute to reduced iron deficiency by providing 27% to more than 50% of the daily requirement of absorbed iron. In contrast, commercial varieties of potatoes typically provide only 10-20% of the daily requirements of absorbed iron.
Women and children in the rural highlands of Peru often consume meals containing only potatoes, making this staple an ideal candidate for biofortification. While the study found that rural Peruvian women can significantly benefit from iron biofortified potatoes, findings may differ in geographies where potatoes are not a major component of the diet since other foods may promote or inhibit iron absorption. While additional research and studies will discover the effect iron biofortified potatoes can have on different populations, as well as the impact on iron deficiency long-term consumption might have, the CIP study demonstrates that iron biofortified potatoes are a promising approach to improving iron deficiency in rural Peruvian communities.
The full study, “Total Iron Absorbed from Iron-Biofortified Potatoes Is Higher than that from Nonbiofortified Potatotes: A Randomized Trial Using Stable Iron Isotopes in Women from the Peruvian Highlands,” can be found here.
Image courtesy of the International Potato Center (CIP)