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Nutrient powder may fight anemia in kids

Sep 7, 2011, 1:27 p.m.

By Genevra Pittman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Sprinkling a vitamin- and mineral-packed powder onto young kids' food may help prevent anemia in countries where many people don't get enough iron, according to a new report.

Kids with the extra nutrients, including iron, zinc and vitamin A, were about 30 percent less likely to be anemic and 50 percent less likely to be iron deficient, researchers found.

Their work sums up data from past studies of anemia and iron deficiency in babies and toddlers who received the vitamin boost compared with those who didn't.

For other aspects of nutrition or kids' development, there's still not enough data to say if the supplements have an impact, according to the researchers, whose findings are published in The Cochrane Library.

"Anemia and iron deficiency probably are the most widespread nutritional deficiencies in the world," said study author Luz Maria de Regil, from the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Half of all young kids are affected by an iron, zinc or vitamin A deficiency, she told Reuters Health, most of them in poor countries. The studies that she and her colleagues reviewed all took place in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

By the time babies are six months old, they are starting to run low on the iron reserves they were born with, researchers say.

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months and continued breastfeeding until kids are at least two years old. During that in-between period, parents typically start to incorporate semi-solid food into babies' diets -- possibly offering an opportunity for the addition of extra sources of vitamins and minerals.

Health programs have relied on iron drops or syrups to prevent anemia in young kids, de Regil said. However, she added, "supplements can be perceived by the mom...as something like a drug. Micronutrient powders are sprinkled into the food so that they don't change the flavor -- (parents) think that they are improving the diet without giving a medication."

In addition, iron drops "really do taste awful," said Purnima Menon, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in New Delhi. "A really substantial advantage of this is you can feed it really easily."

De Regil and her colleagues found six studies that compared the nutrient powders to nothing extra or a nutrient-free placebo powder in kids between 2 and 23 months old. Of more than 3,000 youngsters, those who got the extra vitamins and minerals for a few months at a time, usually daily, were less likely to be anemic or iron deficient at the end of the fortification period.

In two studies that compared the nutrient powders with iron drops or syrups, the researchers found no difference in anemia rates, but cautioned against drawing too much from the less-robust findings.

And there wasn't enough data for them to say whether the extra nutrients, including iron and zinc, made any difference in kids' general health and well-being -- but previous studies have suggested the minerals are important for growth and brain development.

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