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How food engineering benefits people’s health around the world

U of T researcher offers solutions to end nutritional deficiencies through fortified foods
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Contrary to popular belief, adding chemicals to foods can increase their health benefits. COURTESY OF LAURA TAYLOR/CC FLICKR
Contrary to popular belief, adding chemicals to foods can increase their health benefits. COURTESY OF LAURA TAYLOR/CC FLICKR

Have you ever noticed the word “fortified” on your milk labels? It’s not just milk that needs fortification. In simple terms, food fortification means the addition of micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, or amino acids — to increase an item of food’s nutritional value. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has an extensive list of foods subject to mandatory food fortification. Due to the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in Canadians, for example, most dairy products are required to have vitamin D added synthetically. 

Deficiency in micronutrients is a chronic health problem widely seen in developing countries. U of T researchers have developed techniques to incorporate micronutrients into food staples such as salt and oil through innovation in the field of food fortification. The Varsity spoke to Professor Levente L. Diosady from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering about the progress being made by his ongoing research on the subject, which he’s conducting at the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry.

Applications of food fortification technology 

For more than 40 years, under the leadership of former president Venkatesh Mannar, Nutrition International (NI) — formerly known as The Micronutrient Initiative — has been at the front line of the battle against the debilitating problem of nutrient deficiency for people in need around the world. Mannar first approached Diosady with the idea of fortifying salt with iron and iodine in the early 1990s, which is how this research interest initiative took off at U of T. 

To frame the prevalence of nutritional deficiencies, Diosady pointed out that “roughly one person in three in the world is short of micronutrients.” This phenomenon is especially prominent in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In India, roughly 54 per cent of women are affected by anemia — iron deficiency — to the degree of potential maternal and infant deaths. 

NI has dedicated several projects and initiatives to alleviate these health problems. One of these projects took place in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where more than 50 million locals were put on diets with fortified salt. Remarkably, one year later, 20 per cent of women showed improvement in their iron levels. 

Right across the Indian peninsula, 5.5 million school children in Tamil Nadu were provided with lunch cooked using double fortified salt for a decade. Positive results were seen in eight months, and around a third of school children from ages six to 12 were cured of anemia. 

Salts as a fortification vehicle 

Dietary salt is an ideal medium for food fortification since it is an important part of our diet. “Everybody has to eat salt,” Diosady said. 

A large percentage of people living in developing countries do not buy manufactured products from grocery stores — instead of buying bread or flour, they make their own. Therefore, salt reaches rural populations much more effectively than fortified processed foods. 

Due to their high solubility in water, this line of investigation focuses on water-soluble micronutrients including, but not limited to, various B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Fortified salts are expected to dissolve during food preparation and release their micronutrients.  

Diosady elaborated more on the chemistry of fortified salts. One of the downsides of salt is that it is an aggressive chemical — for instance, Diosady brought the example of how salt on roads and sidewalks in the winter accelerates the deterioration and rotting of cars. 

In response to this chemical property, the research team is finding strategies to make sure that the micronutrients on the solid salt crystalline are safely preserved and retained until consumption. Diosady deployed a technique called ‘microencapsulation’ as a protection for fortified salts. Microencapsulation is a process in which an active core ingredient like salt is surrounded by a coating of special materials — the micronutrients — to create small capsules of a wide range of sizes. 

Microencapsulation is used because micronutrients can interact with each other. Iron is known to interact and destroy iodine compounds, and B vitamins can react with ambient particles. Air molecules, UV light, and heat are some other factors that may damage or alter micronutrients. The microencapsulation processes in Diosady’s lab have successfully stabilized all micronutrients tested so far. Added layers of protection ensure the safety of fortified salts. 

Spray painting at a microscopic scale

Diosady’s lab makes premixes that are the size of a grain of salt — less than half of a millimetre in diameter — with water-repellent and colour-masking coating, since salt is soluble in water. Additionally, salt fortified with folic acid gives the final product a tint of yellow, which is the reason for this colour masking. These premixes are made to be put into salt. The ideal product will have these particles of micronutrients integrated in the salt particles. 

Most commercial salts in the world are iodized. The way that the salt-fortifying technology works resembles spray painting. First, iodine compounds — specifically, potassium iodate — are dissolved in water. After spraying the solution onto salt, the salt is left to dry. Iodized salt is then ready to be consumed.

Fortunately, researchers found that the same process also works on folic acids, which can be stabilized alongside iodine in the spraying solution. This discovery opens up the option of easily producing double-fortified salts. One disadvantage, however, is that folic acid tends to tint the salt grains with a yellowish colour. 

The change in colour is even more prominent for salt that has been fortified by getting sprayed with a solution containing vitamin B12. The bright pink hue is something that “looks absolutely gorgeous, but it doesn’t look like something you want to put on food,” Diosady joked. 

Diosady suggested a couple of ways to overcome this problem. Public education may promote the healthy benefits of fortified salt, especially in pregnant and lactating women. If breakthroughs on how to overcome the misconception are unsuccessful, then further chemical developments will be needed to overcome the challenge of colouration.

Global upscaling of food fortification practices 

Diosady said that the main challenge, as of now, is to establish universal standards for food regulation. For safety, the exact overdose or toxicity threshold of various micronutrients must be accurate. Strict manufacturing definitions are also critical to ensure consumer safety. 

Such standards may include required chemical stability for specific micronutrients. Significant progress has been made in India, as the national government is quite open to creating legislation in accordance with latest scientific research. Indian policymakers have successfully incorporated proper fortified food label requirements, safety dosage of micronutrients, and more into their policies.  

There is a push for the Tanzanian government to mandate iron food fortification. Mannar, a long-time friend of Diosady, is currently working with some Tanzanian ministry officials on the need for food fortification, putting an emphasis on its medical justifications. 

Complications to this campaigning arise when targeted countries are experiencing political or military instability. Ethiopia’s civil conflicts are blocking the implementation of food fortification technology that would improve the health of Ethiopians. Diosady must revise his research proposals to match the state of affairs of countries of interest. 

Despite present obstacles, there are reasons for optimism. Mannar has a collection of international and local contacts to promote the use of food fortification. “I don’t think there’s a country in the world where [Mannar] hasn’t been,” said Diosady, reinforcing the point that their research holds great potential for global upscaling. 

In the near future, Diosady hopes to formulate premixes that can put five different micronutrients on salt at the same time. These projects have attracted numerous influential sponsors, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who are interested in providing funds toward research and global engagements.