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Polymer-Coated Microparticles Boost Food Nutrition

Table and kitchen salt

Table and kitchen salt (Lexlex, Wikimedia Commons)

14 Nov. 2019. An engineering team designed a process for adding and protecting tiny particles of nutrients in foods, boosting their nutritional value even when cooked. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions describe the process, and tests with animals and humans, in yesterday’s issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine (paid subscription required).

Malnutrition is a continuing problem worldwide affecting some 2 billion people, leading to illnesses, learning deficiencies, birth defects, impaired growth, and about 2 million childhood deaths each year, according to data cited by the authors. Adding micronutrients — trace elements of nutritional minerals — to foods can improve their nutritional value, but progress is uneven and in some cases heating or extended storage of fortified foods breaks down the added nutrients, losing their value.

A team from the lab of MIT chemical engineering professor Robert Langer, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is seeking ways to add micronutrients to foods that withstand these day-to-day challenges. Researchers led by Langer and research scientist Ana Jaklenec focused particularly on fortifying food staples, those used daily in many households.

“What’s been shown to be effective for food fortification is staple foods, something that’s in the household and people use every day,” says Jaklenec in an MIT statement. “Everyone eats salt or flour, so you don’t need to change anything in their everyday practices.”

The team hypothesized that encasing micronutrients in some form of bio-compatible polymer could protect them from degradation. The researchers tested more than 50 different polymers, and found one material —  poly(butylmethacrylate-co-(2-dimethylaminoethyl)methacrylate-co-methylmethacrylate) or BMC — with the desired properties. BMC, say the authors, remains stable in boiling water, and is commercially available as an FDA-approved food additive.

The researchers found they could contain 11 different nutrients in BMC: iron, iodine, zinc; and vitamins A, B2, niacin, biotin, folic acid, B12, C, and D. In addition, the team discovered they could package up to four different micronutrients together. Lab tests show micro-scale particles encased in BMC withstand boiling for two hours, as well as oxidizing chemicals found in fruit and vegetables, and ultraviolet light.

When exposed to acidic conditions like those in the stomach, however, BMC dissolves, which releases the nutrients. Further tests with lab mice confirmed the performance of BMC-encased micronutrients, including release of nutrients when exposed to stomach acid.

With colleagues from ETH-Zurich, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the researchers conducted clinical trials to evaluate BMC-encased iron micronutrients. An initial trial with 20 women added iron sulfate micronutrients in BMC to salt mixed in servings of maize (corn) porridge. The results show the BMC-microparticles released less than half of the iron into the participants than free added iron.

Those findings required refinements in the BMC-microparticle technology, reducing the polymer content of the coating, thus increasing the ratio of iron sulfate to BMC polymer. A second trial enrolled 24 women, with iron sulfate microparticles added to flour, then baked into bread. Results from that trial show the BMC-microparticles released more iron into participants, reaching 89 percent of free iron.

The researchers believe the results show the technology is feasible for protecting micronutrients, and are identifying staple foods for adding nutrients in BMC-encased microparticles for further trials in developing countries. Several authors are listed as inventors on patents awarded to or applied for by MIT.

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