A study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that pearl millet bred to contain more iron can provide young children with their full daily iron needs.
Pearl millet is an important staple food in semi-arid regions of India and Africa, where iron deficiency is widespread. Lack of iron impairs mental development and increases fatigue. Severe anemia, often caused by iron deficiency, increases the risk of women dying in childbirth.
These new varieties of pearl millet are being conventionally bred to provide more dietary iron to rural farming communities in arid drought-prone regions where few other crops thrive.
In the study, iron-deficient Indian children under the age of three who ate traditionally-prepared porridges (sheera, uppama) and flat bread (roti) made from iron-rich pearl millet flour absorbed substantially more iron than from ordinary pearl millet flour, enough to meet their physiological requirements.
As an added bonus, this iron-rich pearl millet also contained more zinc, which was similarly absorbed in sufficient amounts to meet the children’s full daily zinc needs. Lack of zinc in children can lead to stunting and impaired immune response against common infections.
The principal investigator on the India research team, Dr. Bhalchandra Kodkany of Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, an expert on maternal and child health and a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist, said that most of the pregnant women who go to his clinic have very low levels of iron in their blood.
“We often see cases of severe anemia in women and school children in India because they mostly eat wheat and rice based foods which are very deficient in iron,” he stated in a press release. “So, these results are very welcome news for India.”
Iron-rich pearl millet is being developed using conventional breeding by the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics as part of the HarvestPlus program.
The first iron-rich pearl millet variety was commercialized in 2012 in Maharashtra. It also provides more zinc, is high yielding and is disease and drought tolerant.
Results from this study indicate that children could get their full daily iron needs from just 100 grams of this pearl millet flour. Children aged under two, who might eat less, would still benefit substantially from eating iron-rich pearl millet.
More than 30,000 Indian farmers have purchased and planted this new variety marketed as Dhanshakti (meaning prosperity and strength). Scientists are now developing more iron-rich pearl millet varieties that will have even higher levels of iron to be released in India.