IN THE NEWS: On OCT 19, 2009
Iron-fortified foods may be among the best ways to improve iron status in young children according to New Zealand researchers.
Iron deficiency anemia in toddlers is a serious public health problem. Even in economically advantaged countries, the prevalence of sub-optimal iron status could be as high as 30 percent in this age group. If low iron status progresses to true iron deficiency anemia, it can delay development, impair cognitive function and impact behavior.
New Zealand researchers investigated some strategies for improving iron status in a group of 225 children between the ages of 12 and 20 months. Some of the children ate additional servings of red meat and others were fed iron-fortified milk. (Most milk sold in the grocery store is not fortified with iron). The research is published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Neither red meat nor the fortified milk had a statistically significant effect on the risk for poor iron status in this study. And while those toddlers who consumed more red meat had smaller drops in their iron stores, they were still below standards set by the Institute of Medicine. The researchers noted that increasing red meat consumption was “unlikely to result in the desired population increase in iron stores” for this age group. They concluded that the best strategy for increasing iron stores in toddlers was using fortified foods.
Although this study didn’t include vegetarian children, vegan kids and others who don’t consume dairy foods may have one particular advantage when it comes to iron intake. Not only does cow’s milk contain no iron, but it can also inhibit iron absorption from other foods. Cow’s milk increases intestinal bleeding as well, which increases iron loss. Over-reliance on cow’s milk is related to poorer iron status in young children, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding excessive milk in this age group.
Reducing or eliminating cow’s milk in the diets of young children and replacing it with protein-rich foods that contain iron—such as soymilk—is one easy way to boost iron intake in this age group. Offering kids plenty of foods that are rich in vitamin C is important, too, since it helps improve absorption of iron from plant foods.
But for all children, using foods that are fortified with iron can be an important way to meet needs. Hot and cold breakfast cereals, white rice, and pasta are excellent choices for toddlers in any family.