Genetically modified rice could be a good source of vitamin A for children in countries where deficiency in the vitamin is common, a new study suggests.
The study tested Golden Rice against both spinach and supplements in providing vitamin A to 68 six- to eight-year-olds in China. Researchers found that the rice was as effective as the capsules in giving kids a boost of vitamin A, based on blood tests taken over three weeks.
And it worked better than the natural beta-carotene in spinach, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
GM products under fire
Golden Rice is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in the edible part of the rice plant. But the product has faced opposition from environmental groups and others.
There have also been questions about how efficiently the beta-carotene in Golden Rice can be converted into vitamin A, especially in children.
But the new study suggests the rice works as well as synthetic beta-carotene given in capsules, according to lead researcher Dr Guangwen Tang, of Tufts University in Boston.
"While further study is needed, our results suggest that Golden Rice could be one useful way to combat vitamin A deficiency in areas where rice is a staple food crop and where vitamin A deficiency is still common," Dr Tang said in an email.
"We know vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem," said Dr Keith P West, a professor of infant and child nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
He said the findings are encouraging. "The beta-carotene is absorbed at a level that should affect the vitamin A status of young children," said Dr West, who wasn't involved in the new study.
Facing regulatory hurdles
Based on the current findings, Dr Tang's team says a 100- to 150-gram bowl of Golden Rice should give children about 60% of the daily vitamin A they need.
But Dr West said there are many issues beyond whether the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is absorbed.
As a genetically modified food, it has to face regulatory hurdles. It also has to be "grown by and accepted by different cultures," Dr West said. And of course, young children have to be convinced to eat it.
Dr 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.
He noted that UNICEF has a program to give young children vitamin A capsules twice a year. 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.
(Reuters Health, August 2012)
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