Pumping Iron - PulseResearch
April 25, 2017
Investigating the role of lentils in treating iron deficiency
Iron deficiency, caused by a lack of iron in the body, is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency worldwide, and not just in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, it is considered to be “among the most important contributing factors to the global burden of disease.”
“Iron deficiency occurs when people do not receive enough iron from their food sources, which is especially common among women and young children,” says Dr. Kimberly O’Brien, a researcher at Cornell University.
“Humans must absorb iron from their diets to offset the small amounts of iron that are lost each day,” she says. “When women are pregnant or when children are growing, much larger amounts of iron are needed to support this growth.”
Adding to the problem, in countries in which iron deficiency levels are highest, people do not commonly eat as many highly bioavailable sources of iron, such as meat, and instead favour plant-based diets, which tend to have limited bioavailability of iron.
For this reason, Dr. O’Brien, and co-researchers Dr. Diane DellaValle and Dr. Ray Glahn launched a first-of-its-kind study, funded by Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG), to measure iron absorption from lentils among women. To facilitate this research, they recruited a sample group of 19 healthy women and served them a supplemental iron source, as well as a 117-gram serving of lentils in the form of dal, a lentil-based dish that is common in South Asia, one of the areas most affected by iron deficiency and Canada’s biggest export market for lentils. The women then gave blood samples so that Dr. O’Brien could measure the levels of iron absorbed from the lentils and the supplements and compare them to normal levels.
“We found that, while high in iron concentration, the iron bioavailability, which is measured as the amount of iron absorbed from the food, of lentils is rather low but comparable to that of other non-heme iron sources, like soybeans, black beans, and sweet potatoes,” Dr. O’Brien says. “We also found, as have other studies, that women with lower iron status absorb more iron from this non-heme iron source.”
These results are an important first step for further research aiming to improve the iron absorption from plant-based foods such as lentils. “Knowing the amount of iron absorbed from this food as it is consumed helps us to determine how many people we need in a community-based study to see improvements in body iron status with the goal of impacting functional outcomes of iron status,” Dr. O’Brien says.
This type of work is especially important right now as plant-based foods and food security, which the Saskatchewan lentil industry plays an important role in, is the most practical and sustainable option for improving iron levels worldwide. “Supplement-based interventions are often expensive and difficult to sustain without government support,” Dr. O’Brien says. “Trying to improve the iron content of plant-based foods that can be purchased or grown in many areas of the world may be an effective way to improve iron status.”
SPG Investment: $37,100 USD
Project Lead: Dr. Kimberly O'Brien, Cornell University, New York, USA