Study finds that nutritionally enhanced rice reduces iron deficiency

December 02, 2005

Los Banos, Philippines - Breeding rice with higher levels of iron can have an important impact on reducing micronutrient malnutrition, according to a new study in the Journal of Nutrition. The research, conducted by scientists from the Philippines and the United States, is a major step forward in the battle against iron deficiency, one of the developing world's most debilitating and intractable public health problems affecting nearly 2 billion people.

The lead authors of the article, Dr. Jere Haas from the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, Dr. John Beard and Dr. Laura E. Murray-Kolb from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, Prof. Angelita del Mundo and Prof. Angelina Felix from the University of the Philippines Los Baños, and Dr. Glenn Gregorio from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), oversaw a study in which religious sisters in ten convents in the Philippines included the nutritionally enhanced rice in their diets. After 9 months, the women had significantly higher levels of total body iron in their blood.

"This study documents a major breakthrough in the battle to prevent micronutrient malnutrition," said Dr. Robert Zeigler, director general of IRRI. "These results are especially important for rice-eating regions of the world where more than 3 billion of the world's poor and undernourished live."

The iron-dense variety of rice used in the research (known technically as IR68144-3B-2-2-3) was developed and grown at IRRI and then tested by an international team of researchers from Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of the Philippines Los Baños and IRRI. The research initiative was originally spearheaded and funded by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), with support from the Asian Development Bank and the Micronutrient Initiative. HarvestPlus, an international, interdisciplinary research program focused on breeding crops for better nutrition and led by IFPRI and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), will continue to work with these research findings and partners to increase the level of nutrient density in rice to be even more effective.

"We view this study as a 'proof of concept,'" said Zeigler. "We now know that, if plants are bred with higher levels of iron and other micronutrients, they will improve the nutritional status of people who consume them. This has dramatic implications."

Through a process known as "biofortification," plant breeders are developing staple foods with higher levels of essential micronutrients. This study demonstrates that iron-biofortified rice can raise levels of stored iron in the body and can significantly contribute to reducing micronutrient malnutrition.

"In the past, we relied on supplements and fortification to overcome vitamin and mineral deficiencies," said Howarth Bouis, director of HarvestPlus. "Now we know that biofortification also works, giving us an additional tool in this crucial battle."

The United Nations and other donors spend millions of dollars a year on iron supplements and other strategies to ease the enormous damage wreaked by iron deficiency and related conditions. Iron deficiency can affect a child's physical and mental development, and each year causes more than 60,000 maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth. Recent statistics from the Micronutrients Initiative of Canada and the United Nations Children's Fund indicate that more than half of the developing world's children between 6 months and 2 years of age are iron-deficient during the critical period of their growth when brain development occurs. Many of the worst affected are found among Asia's poorest, but iron deficiency is also widespread in Africa, affecting more than 80 percent of young children in some countries.

Nutritional experts correctly advise that the best solution is a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables and meat, but, for the very poor, such choices are simply not possible and so they depend predominantly on staple foods to stave off day-to-day hunger. This is especially true in isolated rural areas where under-resourced and overstretched public health systems struggle to improve the overall nutrition of the world's poor through nutritional supplements. In these areas, commercially fortified foods also have difficulty making it into the mouths of the hungry and so malnutrition persists.

"The fact that biofortified foods can have an impact on nutritional status in humans is an enormously exciting breakthrough," Zeigler noted. "It is time to shift the agricultural research agenda, and the rice research agenda in particular, away from quantity and toward better-quality food. This may be the start of a nutritional revolution--a very appropriate follow-on from the Green Revolution and one that is desperately needed by millions of the world's poor and undernourished."
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world's leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 10 other Asian countries, it is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources. IRRI is one of 15 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies. Please visit the Web sites of the CGIAR ( or Future Harvest Foundation (, a nonprofit organization that builds awareness and supports food and environmental research.

For information, contact Duncan Macintosh, IRRI, DAPO Box 7777, Metro Manila, Philippines; tel +63-2-580-5600; fax: +63-2-580-5699; email or Johnny Goloyugo at Web sites: IRRI Home (, IRRI Library (, Rice Knowledge Bank (

Study Contributors

For the past decade, a global alliance of research centers, academic institutions and development agencies in both developed and developing countries have committed their time, resources and knowledge to achieving a critical goal-improving the nutritional status of the world's poor through biofortified rice.

The following organizations and individuals contributed significantly to this study:

The University of the Philippines Los Baños
Role: Conducted biofortified-rice feeding trials with 192 religious sisters in 10 convents in the Philippines over a 9-month period.

Angelita del Mundo served as professor of human nutrition and foods in the College of Human Ecology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños until her retirement in 2002. She led the field research team that conducted the feeding trials at the convent, supervised a team of enumerators to ensure the highest levels of scientific rigor and was a co-author of the study. She passed away in November 2004.

Cornell University
Role: Co-principal investigator

Jere Hass is the Nancy Schlegel Meinig Professor of Maternal and Child Nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, with expertise in the effect of iron deficiency on physical and reproductive performance. He served as a principal investigator and lead author of the study.

Role: Coordinated work of all contributing organizations and individuals on the study. HarvestPlus is led by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Howarth Bouis is director of HarvestPlus, an international, interdisciplinary research program that seeks to reduce micronutrient malnutrition by harnessing the powers of agriculture and nutrition research to breed nutrient-dense staple foods. As a senior research fellow at IFPRI, he was part of the first biofortified-rice research effort that led to this study. Bouis has successfully galvanized a global network of research centers and implementing agencies in support of biofortification as a new food-based approach for ending hunger and undernutrition in developing countries.

The International Rice Research Institute
Role: Developed and field-tested biofortified rice in the Philippines.

Glenn Gregorio is a scientist and plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute. His research was instrumental in the identification and field testing of the high-iron rice variety-technically known as IR68144-used in the study. Glenn is a co-author of the study.

Pennsylvania State University
Role: Co-principal investigator

John Beard is a professor of nutrition in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, with expertise in iron deficiency and early child development. He served as a principal investigator and co-author of the study.


This information contains the following:

1. Rice
2. Iron Deficiency in Developing Countries
3. Key Highlights from "Iron-Biofortified Rice Improves the Iron Stores of Non-Anemic Filipino Women," Journal of Nutrition, 2005

1. Rice

  • Rice is a vital staple food for more than half of the world's population, primarily for poor people living in Asia, Africa and Latin America. (International Rice Research Institute [IRRI])

  • Approximately 90 countries cultivate rice. Farmers from irrigated, upland, lowland and flood-prone areas across Asia are the major producers of rice. (IRRI)

  • Rice provides a high percentage of total caloric intake in developing countries. The crop accounts for more than half of the calories consumed in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos, and between 30 and 50 percent in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Mali. (IRRI)

  • Because of the high consumption of rice in developing countries, increasing its nutritional value can lead to significant positive health outcomes. (HarvestPlus)

  • In the Philippines, rice accounts for 41 percent of daily dietary energy intake. ("Iron-Biofortified Rice Improves the Iron Stores of Non-Anemic Filipino Women," Journal of Nutrition, 2005)

    2. Iron Deficiency in Developing Countries

  • Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world. (HarvestPlus)

  • As many as five billion people worldwide are estimated to be iron-deficient. (World Health Organization [WHO])

  • Iron deficiency is the main cause of anemia. More than 2 billion people worldwide are anemic, and much of this is due to iron deficiency. (HarvestPlus)

  • Nine out of ten anemia sufferers live in developing countries. On average, every second, pregnant women and four out of ten preschool children are anemic. (WHO)

  • In developing countries, anemia affects males and females, the young and old, and all age groups. More than half of pregnant women and children (school-age and preschool combined) suffer from anemia, as do 45 percent of the elderly and 30 percent of adult men. (HarvestPlus)

  • Anemia is particularly pronounced in Southeast Asia and Africa, where it is closely linked to poverty. (HarvestPlus)

  • Nearly 250 million people in Africa, and 800 million in Southeast Asia, are affected by anemia. (HarvestPlus)

  • Iron deficiency anemia exacts a heavy toll on the populations it affects in terms of ill health, premature death, impaired child development and lost earnings. (WHO)

  • Iron deficiency in adults has been found to lower workforce productivity, carrying estimated losses of up to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the worst-affected countries. (The United Nations Children's Fund/Micronutrient Initiative, Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency: A Global Assessment, 2004).

  • Overall, the most vulnerable, the poorest and the least educated are disproportionately affected by iron deficiency, and stand to gain the most from its reduction. (WHO)

  • In infants and children, iron deficiency impairs physical growth, mental development and learning capacity. In adults, it causes fatigue and reduced work capacity. Severe anemia also heightens the risk of women dying during childbirth. (HarvestPlus)

  • In the Philippines, 32 percent of women between 15 and 49 years of age are anemic and as many as 75 percent may be iron-deficient. ("Iron-Biofortified Rice Improves the Iron Stores of Non-Anemic Filipino Women," Journal of Nutrition, 2005)

    3. Key Highlights from "Iron-Biofortified Rice Improves the Iron Stores of Non-Anemic Filipino Women," Journal of Nutrition, 2005

  • For the first time, researchers in the Philippines and the United States have confirmed that breeding rice to be high in iron, through a process known as biofortification, can have a statistically significant positive impact on human nutritional status.

  • This finding is documented in the new study, "Iron-Biofortified Rice Improves the Iron Stores of Non-Anemic Filipino Women," which reveals that it is possible to breed rice to deliver higher-than-normal concentrations of iron, an essential micronutrient.

  • After a 9-month, double-blind study, the iron status of women who ate biofortified, iron-rich rice was 20 percent higher than in women who ate traditional rice. The study was conducted in the Philippines, where researchers monitored the diets of 192 Catholic sisters in 10 convents.

  • Individuals in the study with the lowest levels of iron were found to absorb the additional iron provided in the rice at a higher rate.

  • The study serves as proof of concept that it is possible to breed rice for nutrient density and have it improve the nutritional status of iron-deficient populations. Now that it is proven, researchers can move forward with confidence and develop rice varieties with even higher levels of iron that can withstand losses from cooking and processing.

  • Subjects were randomly assigned to consume either high-iron biofortified rice (3.21 mg/kg Fe) or a local variety of rice (0.57 mg/kg Fe). Fe is the scientific symbol for iron.

  • The high-iron biofortified rice contributed 1.79 mg Fe/day in contrast to 0.37 from the local variety, resulting in a 17 percent difference in total dietary iron consumed.

  • The study found a modest increase of serum ferritin and total body iron, but no increase in hemoglobin. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in the body. The serum ferritin level-the amount of ferritin in your blood-is directly proportional to the amount of iron stored in your body.

  • Non-anemic subjects experienced a 20 percent increase in body iron.

  • Under normal conditions, the subjects' daily iron intake (8.0 mg/day) was low, representing only 44 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (18 mg/day).

  • Dietary data collected from the subjects indicated that rice, on average, provided 53 percent of their daily food energy.

  • Biofortified rice could shift the percentage of subjects meeting their estimated average requirement from 53 to 71 percent. Other interventions such as supplementation or commercially fortified foods could close the dietary deficiency gap even more.

    International Rice Research Institute

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