meta-analysis from HarvestPlus analyzed research findings on the relationship between zinc supplementation and risk factors for two common non-communicable diseases (NCDs): type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The research indicates that low-dose, long-duration intake of zinc through supplements reduced risk factors for these NCDs—raising the possibility that consumption of zinc-biofortified foods might have the same beneficial effect. 

In a blog post for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the authors of the meta-analysis—Dr. Erick Boy, Head of Nutrition, and Laura Pompano, an Associate Research Fellow—summarize their findings and note that addressing zinc deficiency could potentially hold the key to addressing both zinc deficiency and NCD risk factors. 

The article states: “Zinc is essential for the normal metabolization of sugars and fats, among other vital roles, and inadequate zinc intake can cause stunting and increase children’s risk for diarrhea and pneumonia. Zinc supplementation can address these problems—and its benefits may extend further: It also been shown, albeit inconsistently, to alleviate several risk factors for diabetes and CVD, including insulin resistance and atherosclerotic plaque-forming lipid profiles, respectively.” 

The research has found that “low-dose and long-duration zinc supplementation—akin to how zinc is delivered by biofortified staples—improved more risk factors for diabetes and CVD than either high-dose or short-duration supplementation. In addition, the size of the effects observed from low-dose and long-duration supplementation was greater than that for high-dose and short-duration interventions for nearly every outcome examined.” 

There is a caveat that the review focused on zinc supplementation studies as there have been no studies examining the relationship between zinc-biofortified crops and NCDs; therefore there are several important differences between supplementation and biofortification that should be considered.

However, the results hold out the potential that zinc-biofortified crops, which fit into the low-dose/long-duration category, could possibly lower the risk factors for NCDs, adding another dimension to their proven nutritional value. This provides a strong evidence-based call to action for pursuing NCD-related research on zinc biofortification.