Student - July 5, 2007

Nanosalt against malnutrition

Development agencies’ initiatives to reduce vitamin and mineral deficiencies in poor countries have had little success so far. Time to start using high-tech solutions like nanotechnology, said honorary professor Michael Zimmermann during his inaugural lecture on 5 July.

In the 1990s the United Nations set a goal of eliminating iodine and vitamin deficiencies in children by 2005. But a million children with a weak immune system still die each year from a shortage of vitamin A, and forty percent of the children in poor countries have retarded mental development as a result of iodine deficiency.

‘We have made the mistake of trying to deal with nutrient deficiencies separately,’ says Zimmermann. ‘In places with an iodine deficiency, we started an initiative to add iodine to salt. Where there was anaemia, we gave children iron supplements. We didn’t take into account that deficiencies have a negative effect on each other.’

An iodine deficiency leads to lower levels of thyroxine, which in turn retards brain development. But an iron deficiency has the same effect. The thyroid gland needs iron so that the enzyme thyroidperoxidase can work properly, Zimmermann discovered during research. The enzyme is involved in the manufacture of thyroxine. On top of this, the symptoms of thyroxine deficiency are made worse by a lack of vitamin A.

‘That means you have to make sure that children in poor countries get more iodine, more iron and more vitamin A,’ says Zimmermann. ‘The only way to do this is with a high-tech solution. You can’t just mix vitamin A, iron and iodine together because they react with each other. We’ll have to encapsulate the particles separately using nanotechnology, so you get a powder that can be added to salt.’

Salt is available even in the poorest countries, says Zimmermann in defence of his idea. In fact, he and his colleagues at his other employer, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, have already successfully tested the triple-fortified nanosalt on Moroccan children.

Not only nanosalt, but other high-tech innovations, such as dramatically genetically modified plants with increased nutritional value, are needed to eliminate deficiencies of essential nutrients, according to Zimmermann. ‘Of course, the ultimate aim must be that everyone has access to enough nutritious food,’ says the new professor. ‘But this is not possible in the short term, so that’s why we need to make use of technology now.’