Fortifying food with iron has always been a challenge. The element is highly reactive (ever seen rust?) and notoriously unstable. And, like a restive student, iron disrupts the whole class, interacting with other ingredients and degraded them, interfering with absorption and imparting its harsh taste the entire proceeding.
Formulators have found ways around this conundrum, but with a cost: Masking iron’s taste has often meant blunting its fortification effectiveness. “No taste” has often meant “little absorption.”
The most bioavailable form of the element is the so-called “iron II” or ferrous form. But these ingredients often exhibit iron’s harsh taste, and, depending on the specific formulation, can also sow some degradation discord among other ingredients. Iron in the ferric, or “iron III” form, is more stable and can be formulated to taste better, but was thought to be relatively poorly absorbed. This was Albion’s view of its “Iron Taste Free” patented ferric glycinate ingredient, Motyka said.
“For a long time we had thought that that ingredient was really something less than it turned out to be,” Motyka told FoodNavigator-USA.
The Guatemalen government had identified anemia as a persitent public health problem. Most of the population had diets poor in absorbable iron sources, Motyka said.
“Most of the population had diets so low in animal protein that they weren’t getting any absorbable iron,” he said.
Ablion’s taste free iron was used in Guatemala to fortify sugar that was also fortified with vitamin A, Motyka said. In multi-year pilot project, the sugar was used in one state to test how well it moved the public health needle. While it was expected that that iron form would not be readily absorbed, it would be something that consumers would accept from a taste perspective, and it wouldn’t break down the vitamin A and turn the sugar brown, Motyka said. The Guatemalen authorities (and Albion) didn’t expect the results to be as good as they turned out to be in terms of lessening the prevalance of anemia.
“We looked at that and we thought, there must be something else going on here,” Motyka said.
After further investiation, Albion discovered the glycine portion of the ingredient was acting as a buffer in the duodenum, the first portion of the small intestine. Iron III can be absorbed in an acidic environment like the stomach, but it rapidly crystallizes in the alkaline reaches of the small intestine and so is excreted.
Motyka said the gylcine temporarily lowered the pH in that region to allow the iron to remain in solution longer and thus be better absorbed.
The additional work Albion did on the ingredient was part of the preparation of a GRAS dossier, Motykka said. The company is also putting together a dossier on the ingredient for EFSA, he said.
“Most of the products that have been forified wiht this are in developing nations,” Motyka said. “But it absolutely would be good for functional beverages or medical foods.”