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Iron brew! Life-saving tea could help mums and babies worldwide

UK backs new ‘super tea’ to save lives of iron-deficient mothers and to help keep their newborns healthy.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Photograph of a tea shop in Bangladesh

The iron-rich tea could help prevent maternal and newborn deaths. Picture: Lucy Milmo/Tess Tinker/DFID

The UK is backing new research into iron fortified tea leaves, which it is hoped will save the lives of thousands of mothers and babies in the developing world.

Across the world, a woman dies in childbirth every 2 minutes. Dr Levente Diosady, a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, suggests a simple iron-enriched cuppa could be part of the solution.

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency causes almost 600,000 child and more than 100,000 maternal deaths each year.

They also estimate that in developing countries, half of pregnant women and about 40% of preschool children are anemic.

Tea is consumed in large quantities all over the developing world, but especially in South Asia, making tea leaves an ideal vehicle for iron.

Dr Diosady has been awarded a grant of £160,000 to develop the idea by the Saving Young Lives Challenge Programme, part-funded by the UK’s Department for International Development.

The initiative funds innovative ideas, following open competition, to help improve women’s and newborns’ health.

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said:

For millions of women across the world, giving birth can be one of the most dangerous times in their lives. A woman dies in childbirth every 2 minutes.

This simple idea has the potential to turn the humble cuppa into a lifesaver.

Dr Levente Diosady said:

Iron deficiency is a big killer of women and children. It’s not a complicated idea, it’s a simple idea but one that can save a lot of lives at birth.

Tea is really consumed in South Asia by practically everybody, but the problem is the chemistry is much, much more difficult. The last couple of years we’ve been working with the delivery system.

Previous efforts to fortify tea leaves have failed because of the tannin molecules in tea, which reacts with iron to create a substance which cannot be absorbed by the body. This new process will coat the leaves in iron, which is released when it comes into contact with hot water without altering the flavour or smell. This coating will then be dissolved in the small intestine, allowing iron to enter the system.

The Department for International Development is investing £1.3m per year over 5 years to the Saving Lives at Birth initiative. The programme is also supported by USAID, the Government of Norway, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and the World Bank.

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Published 2 September 2013