Natural meals promote a wholesome microbiome and fight malnutrition

Trillions of tiny aliens have staked a house both on and in your body. In most cases, however, their occupancy is not an invasion. Rather, these colonies play an essential role in keeping your body healthy.

These microorganisms together form an ecosystem known as the microbiome, and their well-being is closely related to our own. In the gut, microbes help regulate digestive health by processing important vitamins and minerals and boosting our metabolism.

New research from Cornell now shows that biofortified foods grown with higher micronutrient levels can improve the overall composition and function of gut bacteria, which in turn offers health benefits for their host’s body. The paper “Effects of Biofortified Iron and Zinc Foods on Gut Microbiota In Vivo (Gallus gallus): A Systematic Review” was published on January 9th in the journal Nutrients.

“Our analysis found that dietary intake of approximately 50% of biofortified iron / zinc foods had a significant beneficial effect on gut microbiota,” said Elad Tako, associate professor of food science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-author of the Education. “With additional improvements in gut functionality, it also shows that feeding a healthy microbiome reduces the risk of metabolic and chronic disease.”

This review is the first study to investigate the direct relationship between biofortified foods and gut microbiota. Researchers examined the effects of iron biofortified wheat and beans, as well as zinc biofortified wheat, using an in vivo model (Gallus gallus).

In five comparable studies, Tako noted a decrease in potentially pathogenic intestinal bacteria and an increase in bacterial populations that produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) – both of which could be attributed to the biofortified foods.

SCFAs are the main source of energy for cells that line the colon. A higher content of these fatty acids supports the metabolism and leads to a higher absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc.

Sometimes referred to as “hidden hunger”, mineral deficiencies are present in populations that are both undernourished and overnourished. Around 2.3 billion people worldwide are affected by iron deficiency, another 1.3 billion by zinc deficiency – which leads to poor growth, weakened immune function, physical birth defects and neurological behavior disorders.

“Our review shows that consuming bio-fortified iron / zinc foods is an effective and sustainable approach to reducing the double burden of malnutrition,” said Tako.

The group’s analysis showed that foods bioforted with iron and zinc improve the general health profile of beneficial gut bacteria. The increase in mineral absorption supported a more robust population of these beneficial microbes and lowered the overall risk of measles, influenza A, hepatitis B, and bladder cancer.

This evidence of a direct link between the consumption of bio-fortified foods and the improved profile of gut bacteria supports other areas of ongoing research, exploring more ways in which the microbiome affects our overall health.

This review is part of a special edition of Nutrients, “Relieving Zinc Deficiency and Monitoring Poor Physiological Zinc Status in Sensitive Populations”.

Co-authors are Mariana Juste Contin Gomes, a Fulbright scientist at the Tako Lab, and Hércia Stampini Duarte Martino, a visiting professor at the Tako Lab. Both are also part of the Department of Nutrition and Health at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil.

This article also appears in the CALS newsroom.

Jana Wiegand is the editorial content manager at the University of Agriculture and Biosciences.

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