Growing iron-rich plants may be the best way to combat iron deficiencies in people around the world, Swiss scientists said on Thursday.
With genetic engineering and selective breeding of such plants, growers can make strides against a problem that affects two billion people worldwide, they wrote in the Lancet medical journal.
The World Health Organization estimates that a fifth of children under five and a fifth of all women in developing countries are anemic due to too little iron in their diets.
"The high prevalence of iron deficiency in the developing world has substantial health and economic costs, including poor pregnancy outcome, impaired school performance, and decreased productivity," researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich wrote.
Iron deficiency is also a problem in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, where up to 21 percent of girls and women are affected, they wrote.
The researchers evaluated a number of strategies that tackle nutritional iron deficiency on a global scale.
Iron-rich meat is too costly for many in the developing world, they said. Iron supplements in pill form are difficult to distribute in those nations, and many people are reluctant to take them.
While fortifying foods such as wheat-flour or rice with iron has worked well, genetically enriching these plants would preserve more of the mineral during processing.
However, genetic engineering of food is widely rejected in many countries.
"The use of genetic manipulation of course requires all the necessary attention to the concerns attached to them," said Dr. Francesco Branca, regional adviser on nutrition and food security at the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe.
Still, Branca said in a telephone interview, "It's an interesting option. It's a simple option. But it has to go hand in hand with other good dietary practices."
For example, other food and drink items such as tea can inhibit iron absorption, he added.