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Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on iron and its importance for human health.

 iron

Iron’s biological role

Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells which transports oxygen throughout the body. If there is a low level of iron in your body, your body will be unable to carry healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells and a lack of these red blood cells can result in iron deficiency anemia.

During the 17th century, iron had early medicinal uses by Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus and Romanians, and around 1932, it became established that iron was essential for haemoglobin synthesis.

 red blood cells

Red blood cells 

Figures

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released figures suggesting that iron deficiency is incredibly common in humans and therefore happens to be a primary cause of anaemia. 

According to their statistics, around 1.62 bn cases of anaemia are caused by iron deficiency and according to WHO’s 2008 reports, anaemia can be caused by excessive blood loss, poor iron absorption, and low dietary intake of iron.

Bioavailability

Iron bioavailability in food is low among populations consuming plant-based diets. Iron requirement is very important, and when low levels of iron deficiency are prominent among populations in developing countries, subsequent behavioural and health consequences follow. 

These include reduced fertility rates, fatigue, decreased productivity and impaired school performance among children.

Pregnancy

During pregnancy, iron utilisation is increased as it is essential nourishment for the developing fetus. In 1997, a study proved that pregnant women needed the increase in iron, as 51% of pregnant women suffered from anaemia, which is twice as many non-pregnant women.

 iron graphifc

As iron is a redox-active transitional metal, it can form free radicals and in excessive amounts. This is dangerous as it can cause oxidative stress which could lead to tissue damage. Epidemiological studies provide evidence to show that excessive iron can be a potent risk factor associated with chronic conditions like cardiovascular and developing metabolic abnormalities.

Food sources:

Dietary iron is found in two basic forms. It is found from animal sources (as haem iron) or in the form of plant sources (as non-haem iron). The most bioavailable form of iron is from animal sources, and iron from plant sources are predominantly found in cereals, vegetables, pulses, beans, nuts and fruit. 

However, this form of iron is affected by various factors, as the phytate and calcium can bind iron in the intestine, unfortunately reducing absorption. Vitamin C which is present in fruit and vegetables can aid the absorption of non-haem iron when it is eaten with meat.

 salad bowl

‘The global burden of iron deficiency anaemia hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, particularly in children and women of reproductive age,’ says researcher, Dora Pereira. Although iron is an important nutrient to keeping healthy, it is imperative that iron levels are not too high.


Sustainability & Environment

Banana is the largest herbaceous plant in the world and the UK’s favourite fruit. Every year 100 bn bananas are eaten around the world. The banana industry itself was worth US$44bn in 2011, however taking the fruits from the field to the grocery store relies on a delicately coordinated transportation and ripening system.

monkeys eating

The banana colour scheme distinguishes seven stages from ‘All green’ to ‘All yellow with brown flecks’. The green, unripe banana peel contains leucocyanidin, a flavonoid that induces cell proliferation, accelerating the healing of skin wounds. But once it is yellowish and ready to eat, the chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the recognisable yellow colour of carotenoids.

 unripe and ripe bananas

Unripe (green) and ready-to-eat (yellow) bananas.

The fruits are cut from the plant whilst green and on average, 10-30 % of the bananas do not meet quality standards at harvest. Then they are packaged and kept in cold temperatures to reduce enzymatic processes, such as respiration and ethylene production.

However, below 14°C bananas experience ‘chilling injury’ which changes fruit ripening physiology and can lead to the brown speckles on the skin. Above 24°C, bananas also stop developing fully yellow colour as they retain high levels of chlorophyll.

Once the green bananas arrive at the ripening facility, the fruits are kept in ripening rooms where the temperature and humidity are kept constant while the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethene are controlled.

 palm tree

The gas itself triggers the ripening process, leads to cell walls breakdown and the conversion of starches to sugars. Certain fruits around bananas can ripen quicker because of their ethene production.

By day five, bananas should be in stage 2½ (’Green with trace of yellow’ to ‘More green than yellow’) according to the colour scale and are shipped to the shops. From stage 5 (’All yellow with green tip’), the fruits are ready to be eaten and have a three-day shelf-life.

 fruit market

A fruit market. Image: Gidon Pico

The very short shelf-life of the fruit makes it a very wasteful system. By day five, the sugar content and pH value are ideal for yeasts and moulds. Bananas not only start turning brown and mouldy, but they also go through a 1.5-4 mm ‘weight loss’ as the water is lost from the peel.

While scientists have been trying out different chemical and natural lipid ‘dips’ for bananas to extend their shelf-life, such methods remain one of the greatest challenges to the industry.

In fruit salads, to stop the banana slices go brown, the cut fruits are sprayed with a mixture of citric acid and amino acid to keep them yellow and firm without affecting the taste.

 bananas and potassium

Bananas are a good source of potassium and vitamins.

The high starch concentration – over 70% of dry weight – banana processing into flour and starch is now also getting the attention of the industry. There are a great many pharmaceutical properties of bananas as well, such as high dopamine levels in the peel and high amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

Whilst the ‘seven shades of yellow’ underpin the marketability of bananas, these plants are also now threatened by the fungal Panama disease. This vascular wilt disease led to the collapse of the banana industry in the 1950’s which was overcome by a new variety of bananas.

 bananas growing

However, the uncontrollable disease has evolved to infect Cavendish bananas and has been rapidly spreading from Australia, China to India, the Middle East and Africa.

The future of the banana industry relies on strict quarantine procedures to limit further spread of the disease to Latin America, integrated crop management and continuous development of banana ‘dips’ for extending shelf-life.