But the Nutrigems project has repercussions that go beyond the immediate goal of getting iron into malnourished children's diets. This effort promotes international understanding by giving Illinois students insight into global nutrition issues and bringing Latin American graduate students to study in the U of I Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN).
"With the help of former Zamorano students now doing research in our laboratory, we've developed a low-cost, culturally accepted way of getting micronutrients, such as iron, into the diets of Honduran children," said Bill Helferich, a U of I professor of nutrition.
Previous failed attempts at improving nutrition in Honduras have complicated this complex and challenging problem. The micronutrient supplements now offered to Honduran children contain so much ferrous sulfate, a type of iron, that the children's teeth become discolored and their stools turn black. Honduran parents are understandably reluctant to use them or to try anything new, he said.
But Helferich and his associates have gained credibility through their affiliation with the U of I and their partnership with the Pan-American School of Agriculture, known as Zamorano, a U.S. university on Honduran soil that attracts scholars and students from all over Latin America.
"We're teaching Honduran teachers and mothers to fortify rice with iron in amounts that are significant but undetectable to their senses. And the schools are able to use it successfully because the children can't taste it and their parents are sold on its benefits," he added.
The project uses iron sodium EDTA, a chelated form of iron that is more biologically available than other forms and doesn't cause problems when it's mixed with food, even in the typical Latin American diet, which is high in phytates. Phytates reduce the bioavailability of minerals by sequestering them so that they are not absorbed and are instead excreted by the body, he said.
The micronutrients are mixed with flour, oil (available in the Honduran school lunch program), and water. Then the dough is processed through a handheld extruder. When it's dried, broken into pieces, and added to rice, it's invisible and tasteless, said the scientist.
Helferich said this self-fortification can be done for 1,000 kids for less than a dollar a day. He believes that governments will use the process because the very low cost plays a major role in making the Nutrigems project sustainable.
Sustained changes in the way students view global nutrition is another aim of the project. In the undergraduate class he teaches, Helferich is exposing students to the Nutrigems work.
"Initially my students in FSHN 220 will use virtual videoconferencing to interact with their peers at Zamorano, exchanging both cultural and scientific knowledge. Later undergraduate students will be able to study abroad in Honduras and get hands-on experience in the field by participating in this project and others like it," he said.
"Master's students in dietetics will do evaluation interviews with the kids and their mothers and teach some of the courses there. It's great for FSHN students to go down and work with students from all over Latin America who are interested in the same issues they are," he said.
These sentiments were echoed by Juan Andrade, an Ecuadorian postdoctoral research associate in Helferich's lab and a former Zamorano student who obtained his Ph.D. from Purdue University. He spends 25 percent of his time working with Nutrigems.
"What's missing with most study-abroad programs is that you usually don't have a structured project with clear learning objectives. You're told that things are done in a certain way, but you don't get to experience it," Andrade said.
"As students work with the Nutrigems project in Honduras, they see the applied nature of their research and how their work in the lab is affecting people. We're creating a technology that's sustainable, that people are going to use. Being part of it is very rewarding," he said.
"Zamorano students want to do graduate work at Illinois because of the university's reputation. We match the interest of one of their seniors with work that's being done here. We're glad to get them because they have a work ethic that's almost unheard of. They realize they can gain tremendously by being here for a short time," he added.
Helferich said that the work of Nicki Engeseth, a U of I associate professor of food chemistry, and the efforts of two Zamorano alumni who are now FSHN graduate students, Eliana Rosales of Bolivia and Julio Lopez of Guatemala, have been critical in moving the project forward. They have conducted vital sensory research with Honduran children and strengthened the U of I's relationship with Zamorano.
Faye Dong, FSHN department head, enthusiastically supports collaboration between the two schools. "We're educating students to make a difference in the world. Our department has a long history of recruiting Zamorano students for internships and graduate school. And many of our faculty and students have benefited from educational activities there," she said.
"We know that students who participate in this unique project will strengthen their social consciences, and when they continue with their careers, they'll have a greater appreciation of global food issues. They'll understand that culture is a strong driving force in consumer decisions," said Engeseth.
The Nutrigems project is partially funded by a USDA CSREES International Science and Education Grant.