Improving the nutritional value of crops


Poor nutrition can cause health problems ranging from nutrient deficiencies to obesity. Nutrient deficiencies are less common in wealthy nations where people eat a high proportion of fortified foods, which are foods with micronutrients added. Common micronutrient fortification includes adding Vitamin D to milk to promote bone health, folic acid to flour to decrease fetal neural tube anomalies, and iodine to salt for thyroid function. In countries like the United States, where much of the food purchased is processed to some degree, this is an effective solution to combat common micronutrient deficiencies.  

However, adding micronutrients to mass-produced food does little to benefit populations of subsistence farmers in rural areas and developing nations. For these individuals, one way to alleviate nutrient deficiencies is through the biofortification of crops. Biofortification increases the nutritional value of crops through methods like selective breeding and genetic modification. To have the greatest impact with biofortification, it’s important to select a food “that’s a major part of the diet in any particular region that you’re targeting,” according to CSSA member Ray Glahn, a nutritional physiologist at the USDA-ARS Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health.

Many pulse crops are dietary staples, so researchers are developing biofortified varieties. Pulse crops, like lentils and beans, are highly nutritious, but there may be room for improvement, particularly when focusing on regions where pulse consumption is very high and there are limitations to the variety of foods people eat.

One micronutrient that many people do not get enough of is iron. Iron is essential, enabling our bodies to produce the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin found in red blood cells. With insufficient iron, hemoglobin levels drop, leading to the condition known as anemia. The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of the global population suffers from anemia, with many cases attributable to dietary iron deficiency.

This story continues in the October issue of CSA News, available online. Click here to read the full article and learn about biofortification of pulse crops