Recognition of the importance of zinc nutrition in health grows 

Zinc – critical across a range of bodily functions

Zinc is an essential trace mineral and is one of the most plentiful trace elements in the human body. Zinc mediates many physiological functions within the human body, meaning even small deficiencies can have substantial effects. It is required for numerous aspects of cellular metabolism, plays a role in immunity and is essential for normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence.

As the body lacks a specialised storage system for zinc, daily consumption is necessary to maintain adequate levels of the mineral. The recommended daily consumption of zinc depends on age, gender and whether an individual is pregnant and/or lactating. In the US, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDAs) for zinc is 11mg for male adults (19+ years) and 8mg for female adults, this increases to 11mg when pregnant and 12mg when lactating.

Dietary sources rich in zinc include red meat, poultry, beans and nuts. Wholegrains and legumes are also good sources of zinc but the presence of phytates, which have a strong binding affinity to zinc, means its absorption is impaired. When bound by phytic acid, the zinc becomes insoluble and unavailable for uptake in the intestines thus zinc found in meat products where phytates are absent is more bioavailable and better absorbed.

Groups at risks of being deficient in zinc

The prevalence of zinc deficiency globally is concerning, with experts estimating that the diets of as many as two billion people globally are deficient in zinc. Zinc deficiency is particularly common in developing countries, as the dietary sources, meat and poultry that provide the best source of zinc are unaffordable. Other population groups at risk of deficiency include pregnant women, individuals with gastrointestinal disorders and diseases, vegetarians and infants over 7 months who are exclusively breastfed.

In addition to zinc’s involvement in a variety of physiological functions, deficiencies in zinc are increasingly identified as causative factors in a range of diseases and conditions. One study published in Nutrition in 2011 explored the association between zinc deficiency and the cause and subsequent development of cardiovascular disease and renal diseases like hypertension, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease and diabetes. The study suggested that the links between developing such pathologies and zinc deficiency involve oxidative stress damage, apoptosis (cell death) and inflammation.

Recent research published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry outlined a possible biological mechanism by which zinc deficiency can develop with age, as the uptake and utilisation of zinc appears to reduce with age. This suggests that the elderly may also be a vulnerable group at risk of being deficient in zinc. The deficiency in zinc was linked to impaired immunity and increased levels of inflammation, increasing the chance of developing a range of chronic health conditions linked to increased inflammation. The generation of more evidence supporting this theory will create opportunities to fortify a greater range of food and drink products outside of baby food, by developing products targeted at older populations or seniors whose utilisation of zinc is purported to be reduced.

Zinc the most ‘successful’ mineral – awarded 18 health claims by EFSA

The recent health claims awarded by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for zinc saw it gain the most of any mineral, receiving approval for eighteen claims. The claims ranged from maintenance of bones, vision, hair and skin, to its contribution to normal cognitive function, fertility and reproduction and its role in maintaining a functioning healthy immune system and protecting the integrity of DNA. The fact that zinc had the most claims authorised out of any mineral suggests that its inclusion in food and drinks across Europe may be set to rise and spread across more categories, as manufacturers will be able to utilise the 18 approved claims on their products.

The approved claims may also help reduce the scepticism amongst consumers in relation to the purported health benefits of functional food and drinks. Half of UK consumers would buy more functional foods if they were convinced of their health benefits and over six in ten agree that some of the claims are exaggerated.

Source: GNDP

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