High iron beans double brain power – study

Eating high-iron beans improves memory and attention span in female University students, a new study shows.
Farmers in the climbing beans garden. File
Farmers in the climbing beans garden. File

Eating high-iron beans improves memory and attention span in female University students, a new study shows.

Backed by HarvestPlus and the International Food Policy Research Institute, the study was conducted in January- May 2013 by Mercy Lung'aho, a research scientist for the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and published in the American Journal of Nutrition.

The research includes a landmark study documenting evidence that eating beans fortified with iron can reduce iron deficiency in women of reproductive age.

The study has major implications for women and children in Rwanda where it was conducted on 197 University of Rwanda students aged between 18 and 27 in an 18-week randomised controlled efficacy trial.

It recommended that policy makers could consider including iron-bio fortified beans as part of national strategies to overhaul food systems on the continent.

Dr. Mercy Lung’aho, in her remarks, said that the women who participated in the study - all among the most educated, studying at the University of Rwanda - ate beans as part of their meals twice a day for 18 weeks.

Half of the women consumed only bio fortified beans - beans bred to contain more iron - and the other half normal beans with lower iron content.

“Our aim was to determine the efficacy of iron-bio fortified beans in improving cognition compared with control beans. Iron status was assessed based on hemoglobin, ferritin, transferrin receptor, and body iron values and on cognitive performance on 5 computerised tasks at baseline and end line. By the end of the trial, the women who ate bio fortified beans had better memory recall speed and efficiency than the women who consumed conventional beans,” she said.

She added that their work highlights that iron deficiency may disadvantage young women in their academic prospects and careers.

“Without addressing malnutrition, we cannot expect our people and economies to reach their full potential. Our young people are behind in the race before it has even started,” she said.

In an interview with The New Times, Venuste Muhamyankaka, the president of Rwanda Nutritionists' Society, appreciated the work done by the researcher.

He said the results from the findings can lead to improvements in agriculture to enhance maternal and child nutrition outcomes.

“Currently, the country has a high rate of stunting among children younger than 5 years, at 36.7 per cent. I think the findings can be useful and policy-makers can look at how iron fortified beans can be incorporated in interventions to curb stunting and malnutrition, he said.

This study comes as experts in the Global Nutrition Report 2017 pointed to ‘significant burdens’ of malnutrition in 140 countries, warning that if the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, more action must be taken.

Dr. Robin Buruchara, Director of the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), the largest bean breeding network in Africa covering 30 countries, said: “We are intensifying our breeding programmes to respond to multiple challenges which our farmers face: this includes breeding beans which are not only high in iron content but also drought tolerant, high yielding, pest and disease resilient and fit the demands of consumers.”

Solutions such as high iron beans do exist, but are not streamlined into policy to address healthier diets.

Dr. Steve Beebe, leader of CIAT’s bean research programme, believes that iron beans can be part of a response to tackle malnutrition.

“We need firm policy action, to advocate for food systems that include foods improved for their nutritional value,” he said.

“We also need to holistically address a whole range of health factors, from more nutritious diets at household level to education and awareness about healthy diets.”

According to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Africa, anemia is estimated to affect more than half of all women who are pregnant. Iron deficiency is the single biggest nutrient deficiency in the world and mostly affects infants, children and women of childbearing age. It affects physical strength, memory, attention span, and behaviour – yet the physical and mental consequences of iron deficiency are often ignored.