Researchers hope to give condiments a health boost

Researchers hope to give condiments a health boost

URBANA — Spices and condiments may be capable of doing more than beefing up the flavor of foods.

Researchers are working on fortifying some of these commonly used products, such as soy sauce and curry powder, to help make up vitamin and mineral deficiencies in developing countries around the world.

Good nutrition can help lower disease risks, and many foods commonly consumed in the U.S., such as cereals, dairy products and salt, are fortified to help control deficiencies.

But at least one-third of the world's population is being impacted by not getting enough of certain micronutrients — substances required by the body in small amounts — according to Luis Mejia, a University of Illinois food science and human nutrition professor who has been contributing to the World Health Organization's efforts to fortify condiments and seasonings.

The big three micronutrient deficiencies are in vitamin A, iron and iodine, Mejia said.

Vitamin A, found in such foods as carrots, cantaloupe and dark green leafy vegetables, is important for vision, cell growth and the immune system.

Iron, found in meats, eggs, fish and certain vegetables such as broccoli and kale, is important for many cell functions of the body, and iodine, found in seafood and fortified salt, is needed for normal thyroid function for the production of thyroid hormones.

The WHO has been developing global guidelines for fortifying staple foods with vitamins and minerals. According to that organization, fortifying such things as fish and soy sauces, curry powder or bouillon powders or cubes could be very useful if these products are consumed consistently by most of the population in countries where there are deficiencies.

One example would be such items as fish and soy sauces used in Asia, Mejia said.

"They use these condiments practically on a daily basis to flavor their food," he said.

Mejia sees real opportunities to make nutritional gains. He and UI Nutritional Sciences doctoral student Allyson Bower have been identifying where enriching certain foods is needed, and are also working on the legal framework required for food fortification in these countries.

For example, Indonesia has regulations that allow fortification of certain foods such as wheat flour, margarine and rice, but not condiments, he said.