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Monday, 9 December, 2002, 00:02 GMT
Fears over iron deficiency in children
Milk
Cow's milk may not be enough for growing toddlers
Nutritional experts say they are increasingly worried about iron deficiency among infants.

Thousands of infants in the UK have a shortage of iron in their diet, raising the risk of delayed development or behaviour problems.

Research suggests the problem is the most common nutritional disorder in the country, with about a quarter of infants not getting enough iron.

The main cause is the use of cow's milk in babies under one year old, coupled with a reduction in red meat consumption and increase in vegetarianism.

Iron: Good sources
Red meat
Leafy green vegetables e.g. broccoli, kale
Legumes, such as baked (haricot) beans, lima beans, pinto beans
Wholegrain bread
Sunflower seeds
In the UK, toddlers from ethnic minorities and socially deprived groups appear to be particularly vulnerable.

The government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition set up a working group earlier this year to look at the problem.

A conference specifically on the issue is being held at the Royal Society of Medicine in London on Monday.

The conference is set to call for more iron-fortified food to tackle the problem.

However, other experts say that giving iron-fortified milk, particularly to older toddlers, should not be recommended.

Vegetarian diet

Dr Ann Prentice, vice-chairman of the advisory committee, said: "Iron deficiency is a common problem in the UK and we will examine the issues and their ramifications for public health policy."

Iron in the diet is important because it helps the body to produce, among other things, haemoglobin - a prime component of red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body to supply its tissues.

A national study found that 27% of a mixed group of eight-month-old infants had haemoglobin values below healthy levels.

A 2002 study of three-year-olds in the South West found that many of them also had iron intakes well below the recommended level.

While the most easily absorbed form of iron is found in meat, certain vegetables are a good source, and it is perfectly possible to exceed recommended intake levels on a completely vegetarian diet.

'Essential'

Cow's milk is not a good source of iron - "follow-on" milk which is fortified with iron is recommended by some for infants aged above six months.

A survey of 700 parents carried out on behalf of baby milk formula and food manufacturer Cow and Gate suggested that 77% of parents were unaware of any long-term health risks from iron deficiency.

One in five thought that a pint of cow's milk was a better source of iron than a pint of "follow-on" milk or a small portion of red meat.

Nearly half of those questioned thought wrongly that fish fingers were a good source.

Dr James Parker, from Cow and Gate, said: "At around six months, the natural stores of iron passed to babies in the womb are running low, so it is essential that they are replaced.

"This can be achieved through a healthy, balanced diet, but it is clear that many infants are not getting a sufficient amount of iron from their diet.

"For infants up to one year old, red meat and fortified cereals are good sources of iron."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Glenda Cooper
"Not getting enough iron puts babies' health at risk"
The BBC's Adam Brimelow
"The problem is particularly serious in deprived areas"
Dr Margaret Lawson, Institute of Child Health
"A number of studies show children with severe iron deficiency do less well in development and intelligence tests"
See also:

13 Dec 01 | UK
30 Oct 02 | Health
03 Aug 01 | Medical notes
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