Eating tiny nutrient particles could be better than health supplements

By Layal Liverpool Nutrient deficiencies are a big problem worldwideGetty ImagesTiny particles packed with vital nutrients could provide a better way of delivering dietary supplements to people worldwide. The particles can protect their contents from moisture and also resist heat during cooking before breaking down in the stomach to release their contents. Some 2 billion…

By Layal Liverpool

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Nutrient deficiencies are a big problem worldwide

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Tiny particles packed with vital nutrients could provide a better way of delivering dietary supplements to people worldwide. The particles can protect their contents from moisture and also resist heat during cooking before breaking down in the stomach to release their contents.

Some 2 billion people globally have nutrient-deficient diets. This is the leading cause of cognitive and physical disorders in the developing world, according to an international research team led by Ana Jaklenec and Robert Langer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A major challenge in adding nutrients to food is that many nutrients are destroyed by the heat of cooking or add a bad taste to the food, the two researchers say. Their team has overcome this problem by trapping nutrients inside small, protective particles, which can be added to food.

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Heat-resistant

The microscopic particles measure less than a quarter of a millimetre across and can package 11 different nutrients individually, or combinations of up to four different nutrients together. They are made of a material that is resistant to heat, light and moisture, but which disintegrates when exposed to the acidic environment of the stomach, ensuring that the nutrients contained inside can be released and absorbed by the gut.

The researchers baked iron-containing versions of the particles into bread, which was then eaten by 24 volunteers. Almost 3 weeks after eating the bread, iron levels in the blood of the volunteers were equivalent to levels detected after they had taken a conventional iron supplement. The researchers, who received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also tried the bread, as did Bill Gates himself.

“Many of us, including Bill, have tasted the bread,” Jaklenec and Langer told New Scientist. “He and his team have been huge supporters of this work in every way.”

“It’s a very exciting report,” says Giuseppe Battaglia at University College London. “I think the most exciting thing is to see this really work in a human population.”

Battaglia says the approach could have applications beyond delivering nutrients: it may also be possible to encapsulate some therapeutic drugs using the particles.

Journal reference: Science Translational Medicine, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aaw3680

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