Researchers have created a new way to fortify food with vitamin A

The study shows that encapsulating the vitamin in a polymer called BMC allows it to be added to food, while remaining stable.
Brittney Grimes
Table full of food
Table full of food

fcafotodigital/iStock 

Fortifying foods with new polymer particles containing vitamin A could promote better vision and health for millions of people.

A novel way to fortify foods with vitamin A has been discovered. It can potentially change the lives of people who don’t have access to vitamins in their dietary regimes.

The importance of vitamin A  

Vitamin A is a crucial nutrient for vision and proper functioning of the immune system. It is also vital for organs such as the brain, skin, and lungs. It is a fat-soluble vitamin that has immune-enhancing properties. Vitamin A can be derived from both plants and animals, which supply different forms of the vitamin to the human body – retinol, retinal, retinyl ester and retinoic acid.  

Vitamin A deficiency can cause multiple problems, an issue that is common in developing countries where there is limited access to food containing the nutrient. Deficiency rates affect approximately one third of preschool-aged children of the global population, with the highest prevalence and percentage in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, at 48% and 44% respectively.

The absence of vitamin A in the diet is the leading cause of blindness globally in children. Vitamin A deficiency can cause dryness and inflammation within the cornea of the eye, a condition called xerophthalmia. This occurs after vitamin A has been depleted and can lead to permanent blindness.  

A new discovery

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a new way to enrich foods with vitamin A. They hope the discovery can help millions of people around the world who don’t get enough of the nutrient.

The study, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, revealed that the scientists can encapsulate vitamin A in a protective polymer that would prevent the nutrient from being broken down during cooking or storage. Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, explains the reasoning behind using the protective polymer. “Vitamin A is a very important micronutrient, but it’s an unstable molecule,” Jaklenec said. “We wanted to see if our encapsulated vitamin A could fortify a food vehicle like bouillon cubes or flour, throughout storage and cooking, and whether the vitamin A could remain biologically active and be absorbed.”

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The team wanted to see if vitamin A could be fortified in food such as bread or bouillon cubes because they are commonly eaten in West African countries, where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent. In a small clinical trial, the research team showed that when individuals ate food fortified with the encapsulated vitamin, the absorption of the nutrients — known as bioavailability — was similar to when they participants in the study consumed vitamin A on its own. The team showed that the encapsulated nutrients could be easily added to flour and bouillon cubes.

The research showed that people can effectively gain the necessary nutrients needed from the encapsulated vitamin. “This is a study that our team is really excited about because it shows that everything we did in test tubes and animals works safely and effectively in humans,” said Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute.

The polymer can help improve the shelf life of nutrients

The researchers at MIT showed that they could use a polymer called BMC to encase vitamin A, and other vitamins as well, inside of food. In 2019, the team discovered that using the protective coating could improve the shelf life of the nutrients, along with allowing for the absorption of nutrients.

BMC is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “generally regarded as safe” and is already being used as coatings for medication and dietary supplements.

Researchers have created a new way to fortify food with vitamin A
An example of encapsulated pills.

Testing the vitamin storage

In order to test the vitamin A storage, an industrial process known as the spinning disc process was used. The procedure involved mixing vitamin A with the polymer to form particles 100 to 200 microns in diameter. To prevent the particles from sticking together, they were also coated in starch.

The team discovered that vitamin A encapsulated in the polymer particles were more resistant to degradation by light, boiling water or high temperatures. In other words, the effectiveness and strength of the vitamin were not harmed by the heat. It also remained more active than if it was delivered in a form called VitA 250, which is a current form of vitamin A used for enrichment in food.

The researchers discovered that the encapsulated vitamin could survive harsh and humid conditions, at 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and 75 percent humidity. Vitamin A remained much more stable within the polymers than other forms of the nutrient when put under the extreme conditions.

“The enhanced stability of vitamin A with our technology can ensure that the vitamin A-fortified food does provide the recommended daily uptake of vitamin A, even after long-term storage in a hot humidified environment, and cooking processes such as boiling or baking,” said Wen Tang, the paper’s lead author and former MIT postdoc, who is currently an associate professor at South China University of Technology.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The polymer has been licensed to two companies that hope to develop it for use in food products. The researchers want to use the information from this study to help reduce malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies around the world.  

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