Getting Vitamin A from rice

Getting Vitamin A from rice (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune)

As a genetically modified food, it has to face regulatory hurdles. It also has to be "grown by and accepted by different cultures," West said. And of course, young children have to be convinced to eat it.

The issue of cultural acceptance is not unique to Golden Rice, West pointed out. But, he said, it underscores the fact that no single food is a "panacea."

There are other "biofortified" foods being studied for combating vitamin A deficiency, including ones conventionally bred to be rich in beta-carotene.

West and his colleagues are beginning a study of "orange maize" in rural villages in Zambia - a country where vitamin A deficiency is common and white corn is a dietary staple.

Research has already suggested that the beta-carotene in the bright-orange corn is converted to vitamin A in the body at a higher rate than the beta-carotene found naturally in vegetables like spinach and carrots.

West noted that UNICEF has a program to give young children vitamin A capsules twice a year (one capsule is good for a six-month supply of the vitamin).

But only some countries with widespread vitamin A deficiency take part in the program, and UNICEF considers "diversifying" diets and fortifying already commonly-eaten foods to be key to combating vitamin A deficiency.

In wealthy countries, people may take food fortification for granted, West pointed out. But in developing countries, there may be no systems in place to provide such foods, or the costs may be out of reach for the poor.

A range of foods naturally contain vitamin A or vitamin A precursors - from liver, fish oil and eggs to spinach, carrots, mango and red peppers. But again, West noted, those foods may either be locally unavailable, depend on season, or be priced beyond what most families in developing nations can afford.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online August 1, 2012.