TUESDAY, 21 JULY 2020Malnutrition continues to be a major health challenge throughout the world. Around 45% of deaths among children under 5 are linked to nutrient deficiency, and around 2 billion people suffer from some form of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation.
One solution to this problem is the artificial fortification of food products with enhanced nutrient levels. When subsequently farmed and consumed by humans, these enhanced foods could address issues surrounding malnutrition in target populations. Why is this approach better than supplying nutrients to humans directly, in a pill? Firstly, people are more likely to accept supplemental nutrition when housed in normal, tasty food. Furthermore, importantly, research has shown a higher availability of nutrients to the human digestive system through this method, than through a pill.
A number of candidates are available when choosing which food is best to fortify. While companies like Monsanto have fallen into controversy through their genetic engineering of crops, and meat farming is growing less sustainable for climate-related reasons, Dr David Aldridge and PhD student David Willer propose that shellfish may be the answer. And, through their recent publication in Frontiers in Nutrition, they demonstrate a way to supercharge these creatures with enhanced micronutrient levels.
Shellfish are a good choice for several reasons. They are more sustainable to farm than meat and have a higher protein content than beef. They are a rich source of many minerals, and the fact that we eat all of the organism – including the gut – enables their recently ingested food, and any supplemental nutrition, to be consumed by us too. They are cheap, with the potential for a healthy expansion of the worldwide aquaculture, since over 1,500,000 km2 are available for industry development. And the ‘depuration’ stage of production, in which the shellfish are housed in cleansing tanks for 48 hours after harvest, provides a golden opportunity for fortification.
The problem of how to fortify these animals with extra nutrients was solved by Aldridge and Willer through the use of a digestive, microencapsulated, nutrient package – in other words, a ‘vitamin bullet’. In fact, Aldridge is one of the co-founders of BioBullets Ltd., a company which produces these packages for wider use. These bullets are used to nutritionally fortify the shellfish by feeding them during depuration and can be designed for the particular nutritional needs of a region. In the Frontiers paper it was shown that, in oysters fed with fortified microcapsules in the lab, Vitamin A and D levels could be increased to higher than that of salmon.
Farming fortified shellfish has the potential to tackle the issue of malnutrition and has important knock-on effects on conservation and sustainability. In order to unlock the potential of this new food, however, further research and industry trials are needed.
D.F. Willer & D.C. Aldridge, Vitamin bullets. Microencapsulated feeds to fortify shellfish and tackle human nutrient deficiencies. Frontiers in Nutrition (July 2020). DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00102
Adiyant Lamba is a PhD student in developmental biology, and news editor at BlueSci