This Start-Up Is Making Iron In Plant-Based Meat Easier To Absorb

Plant-based meats could soon be fortified with easy-to-absorb iron


3 Minutes Read

Nélida Leiva Eriksson, CEO, founder Ironic Biotech Nélida Leiva Eriksson, CEO of Ironic, wants to solve iron deficiency with plant-based proteins - Media Credit: Ironic Biotech

A Swedish start-up has secured €1 million in funding to develop plant-based proteins that help the body to easily absorb iron.

Read more: Meet Blackstrap Molasses: The ‘Best Source’ Of Plant-Based Iron

Ironic Biotech produces plant-based iron supplements using precision fermentation. It will use the pre-seed funding to expand its patent portfolio and optimize its production process. It says that the supplement can be used by plant-based food companies that want to increase the level and bioavailability of iron in their products.

“Our active compounds that come from our chosen plants are very stable and cause less oxidative damage compared to those found in animals and certain group of plants,” Nélida Leiva Eriksson, CEO and founder of Ironic Biotech, told Plant Based News. “At the same time, our product can be consumed by people who are committed to have a plant-based diet.”

Between 25 and 30 percent of the global human population suffers from iron deficiency. This is mainly due to gastrointestinal bleeding and periods in women. Too little dietary iron and low levels of absorption also contribute to the problem. But the consumption of red meat to address the problem comes with serious ethical, environmental and health impacts. 

“New ingredients like [Ironic’s] enable the food industry to tackle a global health problem with new products,” Louise Heiberg, Investment Director at Nordic Foodtech VC, which provided the funding, said in a statement.

Iron in plant-based meat

Iron supplements made by Ironic Biotech
Ironic Biotech Ironic has made iron compounds from plant proteins using precision fermentation

It’s possible to get enough iron in your diet from plant-based wholefoods. Nuts, legumes, tofu, and leafy dark green vegetables are great sources of iron. But many people, including those who eat meat, are still deficient in iron.

Read more: 17 Iron-Rich Vegan Recipes

“Worries about iron uptake are … a significant barrier to reducing the use of red meat in the Western diet,” said Heiberg. 

This worry seems particularly acute around plant-based meat alternatives such as burgers. If people are relying on these alternatives as a source of iron, they are unlikely to be getting enough from them. A 2022 Swedish study showed that the iron in available alternatives was not readily absorbed by the body.

Ironic’s supplements could solve this problem, thereby helping people to move away from red meat as a source of iron. “Our active compounds can be used as a food ingredient because it has no taste and will not react with the food; therefore, it will not damage the flavour or texture of the food,” said Eriksson.

Heme versus non-heme iron

The key is to provide heme iron from plant sources. Heme iron is only found in animal-based food, while plants contain non-heme iron. But Ironic Biotech says that it’s produced non-animal heme iron.

Only about 10 to 15 percent of iron in Western diets is thought to come in heme form. Yet this provides up to 40 percent of the iron that the body absorbs. This is because heme iron is more bioavailable, while non-heme is not absorbed as efficiently.

Read more: Could The ‘Third Wave’ Of Vegan Cheese Move Flexitarians Off Dairy?

Ironic has made iron compounds that it says are “highly bioavailable,” with an absorption rate comparable to that of heme iron in meat.

Ironic says its plant proteins also provide a better alternative to iron supplements currently on the market, which can cause side effects including digestive problems and nausea.

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