Recent research has discovered that two common iron compounds often used in dietary supplements and as a food additive may be carcinogenic and influence the development of colon cancer in particular. The fortification of foods with iron and other micronutrients is common worldwide and is an invaluable addition to poor diets, especially those of malnourished women and children. Iron is essential for sustaining growth and more is needed during menstruation and pregnancy. However, it is important to be aware of the potential side effects of supplementing the diet with iron.

Problems caused by iron supplements

Taking iron supplements can trigger dysbiosis where the balance of microbes in the gut is disturbed. This can cause mild irritations such as constipation or feelings of nausea. In very high doses, iron can be toxic and increases the risks of serious conditions such as liver disease, heart failure, and diabetes. There are several variations in the iron compounds used in supplements. In the USA, an injectable iron complex dispensed to adults who are unable to take conventional supplements has been found to cause abnormally low levels of phosphate in the blood. This leads to muscle weakness, confusion and is a potentially deadly condition. However, in dealing with iron deficiency on a global scale, the benefits of adding iron to the diet far outweigh the side effects and risks.

Fortification of foods to combat malnutrition

Although certain conditions such as pancreatitis or parasitic infestation can result in malabsorption, lack of iron is most widely caused by malnutrition. Pakistan’s National Nutrition Survey of 2011 revealed that 15% of children are acutely malnourished and almost 25% of the world’s population is affected by the blood disorder anemia. Without enough iron to make healthy red blood cells, the body can’t get enough oxygen. This leads to fatigue which can affect everything from the immune system to brain function. A recent study has shown that biofortified pearl millet can help improve learning and mental abilities related to perception, attention, and memory among teenagers. Fortifying food with iron is generally recognised as beneficial for those with iron deficiencies.

Iron is an essential part of the human diet and a lack of it causes anemia leading to fatigue, stunted growth, and developmental problems. Iron supplements can cause complications but fortified foods help save lives on a global scale.