Consuming Iron-Biofortified Pearl Millet Improves Indian Adolescents’ Cognitive Outcomes

Cooking with high iron pearl millet in India/Photo: HarvestPlus

A study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition provides evidence biofortified high-iron pearl millet can stem the deleterious ripple effect of iron deficiency by significantly improving nutrition and cognitive performance. Poor diets lacking in iron limit brain development and learning capacity, hampering the potential of individuals and societies, generation after generation. Countries like India are at the heart of this challenge, as nearly half of all Indian women and children under five are anemic. Iron deficiency is a major—and preventable—cause.

When Indian adolescents consumed biofortified pearl millet twice daily as bhakri (a local flatbread) or shev (a savory snack) for six months, researchers found the students had significantly improved learning and mental abilities related to perception, attention, and memory.

This is the second landmark study from HarvestPlus, which leads A4NH's work on biofortification, to demonstrate that iron biofortification results in functional cognitive improvements that could profoundly impact women and teen's daily lives, including their ability to succeed at school and work.

“If we can improve adolescents’ performance in school by improving their iron status we may also have longer term impacts in terms of their ability to secure a good job, or be admitted to a college program,” says Dr. Samuel Scott, Associate Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, lead author of the publication.

The randomized, controlled efficacy study in Maharashtra, India, among 140 economically-disadvantaged 12-16-year-olds, compared the effects of eating biofortified iron pearl millet to conventional pearl millet. Computer-based tasks were administered before and after six months of consuming the pearl millet to measure cognitive skills.

A previous paper from the study showed that eating the biofortified pearl millet for six months resolved iron deficiency, faster than the conventional pearl millet. A systematic review in 2017 showed biofortification’s efficacy to improve iron status in diverse settings including the Philippines, India and Rwanda, and at-risk populations such as women of reproductive age and school-age adolescent children. Most encouragingly, the effects were highest among those with the greatest potential to benefit from the intervention: individuals who were iron deficient at baseline and among participants who consumed the greatest amount of the crop.


This piece is excerpted from a post by Courtney Meyer and Jen Foley of HarvestPlus. The original, full post can be found here. Learn more about A4NH work in biofortification here.