Iron deficiency anemia is a growing public health problem, above all in developing countries. About 2 billion individuals or about 30 percent of the world’s population are anemic, many due to iron deficiency which can lead to developmental disorders in children. The pharmaceutical industry has developed a range of products for iron fortification of foods to provide the body with the element central for oxygen transport through the bloodstream. But cost, bioavailability and other factors created limitations. Ferrous sulfate, currently a standard treatment for humans, changes color and taste of foodstuffs in an undesirable manner and shows harmful side-effects.
Recent nanotechnology research at ETH Zurich pursued a different avenue: edible nanofibers based on whey protein are loaded with iron nanoparticles and delivered as a food supplement in liquid or powder form. Experiments with rats showed that stomach enzymes were capable of dissolving the whey protein nanofibers completely, while acidic conditions in the human stomach are certain to dissolve the load of iron nanoparticles with greatly improved bioavailability. The study also tested for risk of harmful accumulation of nanofibers or nanoparticles within the organism, since whey protein fibers had never before been used in food stuffs. But not a single indication of accumulation or changes in organs was found. That notwithstanding, additional studies will be needed to establish security for human consumption. Cost-benefit analysis measuring bioavailability and resorption of iron nanoparticles shows a substantial improvement in nutritional supplementation at a particularly low cost of ingredients and manufacturing processes.