Fortified shellfish to tackle vitamin deficiency in people

Fortifying oysters and mussels with microencapsulated vitamins suggested to reduce nutrient deficiencies around the world.

July 20, 2020

3 Min Read
Fortified shellfish to tackle vitamin deficiency in people
shiyali/iStock/Getty Images

Researchers affiliated with the University of Cambridge in the U.K. have developed a new way to fortify shellfish to tackle human nutrient deficiencies that cause severe health problems across the world. The team is now working with major seafood manufacturers to further test the microencapsulation technology, or "Vitamin Bullets."

According to the university, more than 2 billion people worldwide are nutrient deficient, leading to a wide range of serious health problems. Fortifying food with micronutrients is already an industry standard for enhancing public health, but now scientists in the University of Cambridge department of zoology have teamed up with Cambridge-based company BioBullets to supercharge one of the world's sustainable sources of animal protein: bivalve shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels.

Dr. David Aldridge and doctoral student David Willer said they have produced the world's first microcapsule designed specially to deliver nutrients to bivalves that are beneficial to human health. These Vitamin Bullets — manufactured under patent by BioBullets, Aldridge's company — are tailored for optimal size, shape, buoyancy and to appeal to shellfish.

This breakthrough, described in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, is particularly valuable because when bivalves are consumed, the entire organism, including its gut, is eaten, meaning that the nutrients the animal consumed toward the end of its life are also ingested. This makes bivalve shellfish the ideal target for nutritional fortification, the university said.

In their laboratory, Aldridge and Willer trialed microcapsules fortified with vitamins A and D on more than 100 oysters to identify the optimal dose. They also established that this should be fed for eight hours toward the end of "depuration," the period in which bivalves are held in cleansing tanks after being harvested.

The team found that fortified oysters delivered around 100 times more vitamin A and more than 150 times more vitamin D than natural oysters. Even more important, they dramatically outperformed salmon, one of the best natural sources of these vitamins, the announcement said. The fortified oysters provided more than 26 times more vitamin A and more than four times more vitamin D than salmon.

The scientists determined that a serving of just two of their supercharged shellfish provided enough vitamin A and D to meet the human recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for those nutrients.

According to the University of Cambridge, vitamin A and D deficiencies pose a particularly serious public health challenge around the globe. For example, in Ghana more than 76% of children are vitamin A deficient, causing widespread mortality and blindness. In India, 85% of the population is vitamin D deficient, which causes cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and rickets. Even in the U.S., more than 40% of people are vitamin D deficient.

"We have demonstrated a cheap and effective way to get micronutrients into a sustainable and delicious source of protein. Targeted use of this technology in regions worst affected by nutrient deficiencies, using carefully selected bivalve species and micronutrients, could help improve the health of millions while also reducing the harm that meat production is doing to the environment," Willer said.

Aldridge added, "We are very excited about BioBullets' potential. We are now establishing links with some of the world's biggest seafood manufacturers to drive a step change in the sustainability and nutritional value of the seafood that we consume."

The University of Cambridge noted that bivalves have a high protein content, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and have some of the highest levels of key minerals of all animal foods, although the nutrients they deliver naturally are unlikely to solve global deficiencies. These shellfish are also highly sustainable to farm, with a smaller environmental footprint than animal meat or fish production and even than many plant crops such as wheat, soybean and rice.

The researchers pointed out that consumers in poorer regions where vitamin deficiencies are most prevalent are more likely to buy slightly more expensive fortified food than to make additional purchases to take supplement pills. Willer and Aldridge calculated that fortification adds just 0.56 cents to the cost of producing a single oyster.

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