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One quarter of the world’s population does not get the right nutrients needed for a healthy life. Low iron intake is a particularly challenging problem in this respect. A consortium consisting of physicists and chemists from the universities of Amsterdam, Wageningen and Utrecht, together with industry partners Unilever and Nouryon (former AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals), and led by UvA physicist Noushine Shahidzadeh, has set up a 1M€ project with a €600.000 NWO Technology Area grant to understand iron interactions with phytochemicals and to design nature-inspired salts for mineral delivery.

PI of the project: Dr Noushine Shahidzadeh (Associate Professor) – UvA Institute of Physics – WZI soft matter group

To indicate of the magnitude of the problem, worldwide, 29% of women of reproductive age suffer from anemia, meaning they do not have sufficient iron intake to produce red blood cells. One of the big societal challenges of this era is to solve such problems by providing personalised nutrition for the growing and ageing world population, and to do so in a sustainable way using consumer acceptable solutions. This challenge includes the delivery of essential micronutrients in foodstuffs while maintaining excellent product quality.

Diverse team

To face this challenge, a diverse and experienced team of researchers and industry partners was formed. Food chemist Jean-Paul Vincken from Wageningen University & Research is a world leading expert in phytochemical chemistry – the research of chemical compounds produced by plants. Physicists Noushine Shahidzadeh and Daniel Bonn from the University of Amsterdam have an extensive expertise in the behaviour of soft matter: crystallization and rheology, the study of the flow of matter. Physical chemist Willem Kegel from the University of Utrecht is an expert in colloids – suspensions of microscopic particles inside other substances. The project will be conducted in close collaboration with two world leading companies in food and chemistry: Unilever and Nouryon.

The challenge of iron

Inspired by large variety of minerals in Nature, the aim of the project is to design multi-mineral salts that can be used in food to deliver iron to the body. The reason that delivery of iron is particularly challenging, is that in food containing plant materials like fruits and vegetables, iron reacts with certain plant chemicals. This compromises the quality of the product by changing its colour, and may moreover affect availability of iron to the body. A well-known example of the colour change is the reaction of iron with certain chemicals in tea, which renders the tea black – a process which has actually been utilised in the past to create ink, but which of course does not make the tea particularly appetizing. By investigating the interaction between iron and phytochemicals and by designing multi-mineral water soluble and water insoluble salts with iron embedded in their structure, the researchers – including a team of three PhD students – hope to remove these difficulties.

Crystallisation of NaCl (table salt) in morphologies different than its equilibrium cubic shape: cauliflower, pearl and pyramidal crystals. Controlling the crystal structure is an important strategy to reduce sodium intake and create multimineral salts. Image: N. Shahidzadeh (UvA).

The outcome of the program will be used to create value added ingredients and to guide product design to sustainably produced, personalised food of excellent quality. In addition, such value-added materials are expected to find several applications in other industrial fields.