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Joining Forces for "Superfoods"

In Bangladesh, the IAEA is supporting research of enriched foods. In one study, women are changing their diet by replacing the typical white-coloured sweet potato with an orange-fleshed version that is rich in beta-carotene, a pro-vitamin A component. (Photo: Kazi Jamil, Bangladesh)

An IAEA technical meeting this week examined new strategies to bolster nutrition among the world´s poor. The meeting, held in joint cooperation between the IAEA and a global group of scientists and institutions called HarvestPlus, centered on a process called biofortification, a practice being used to confront nutritional deficiencies in diets among the world´s poor.

"HarvestPlus is the leading light in biofortification, a relatively new strategy to combat micronutrient deficiencies," said Lena Davidsson, Head of the IAEA´s Nutritional and Health-related Environmental Studies Section. "HarvestPlus works on various staple crops by using plant breeding to improve nutritional quality, and the IAEA uses nuclear techniques to evaluate bioavailability and efficacy in humans."

By using conventional plant breeding techniques, biofortification is a relatively new approach to addressing nutritional deficiencies among the world´s poor. While nutrients have traditionally been added to foods in processing stages, biofortification seeks to pack nutrients into staple foods while they are growing. This advance is an improvement in that staple crop varieties that are richer in nutrients may reach those populations that do not access centrally processed fortified foods, leading to a more economic approach to bolstering foods with much-needed nutrients.

"Biofortification is all about bringing agricultural science as an intervention to improve micronutrient nutrition," said Howarth Bouis, Director of HarvestPlus. "With our biofortification strategy, we try to put more vitamins and minerals into the foods staples that the poor are already eating in large amounts."

HarvestPlus has teamed up with the IAEA on a 4-year coordinated research project (CRP) involving research laboratories in Asia and Latin America. HarvestPlus takes the lead by developing biofortified foods, and the IAEA supports the project by scientifically gauging the body´s ability to use the nutrient-rich food.

One such project in Bangladesh is studying biofortified orange sweet potatoes. A selected group of young women are changing their diet by replacing the typical white-coloured sweet potato with an orange-fleshed version, which is rich in beta-carotene, a pro-vitamin A component. Over a period of time, the Bangladeshi women´s vitamin A body pools are evaluated using a sophisticated stable isotope technique. The joint project, when completed, will provide new information about the usefulness of biofortified sweet potatoes to combat vitamin A deficiency.


The IAEA fosters the use of stable (non-radioactive) isotope techniques to develop evidence-based nutritional interventions to combat malnutrition in all its forms. Stable isotope techniques have been used as research tools in nutrition for many years. However, the application of these techniques in programme development and evaluation is a relatively new approach where the IAEA has a unique opportunity to contribute technical expertise. The use of stable isotope techniques adds value by increasing the sensitivity and specificity of measurements as compared to conventional techniques.

The joint technical meeting on Biofortification to Improve Micronutrient Nutrition was held at IAEA Headquarters 12-14 August 2008.

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