Plants as vegan iron sources
Jenny Plumb from the Food Databanks National Capability at the Quadram Institute looks at which plants make the best vegan iron sources, and the factors that affect how much of this iron we absorb into the body. And, through her work on the EIT Food PERNUG project, find out how we are exploring ways of boosting the iron content of plants so you can grow biofortified crops in your own home
Meet the kitchen garden of the future: sustainable vertical farming meets personalised nutrition
A new project is set to bring sustainable vertical farming and personalised nutrition into the home and workplace by developing kitchen gardens that grow produce to match individual dietary needs.
The EIT Food, PERsonalised NUtrition through kitchen Gardens (PERNUG) project aims to develop attractive, state-of-the-art hydroponic systems for growing a range of different food plants in a domestic setting. EIT Food is supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.
Using a specially designed app linked to the latest scientifically validated data on nutrition and health, consumers would be able to select from a range of different crops and varieties linked their own personalised nutritional needs. The system would provide the seeds and the growing medium, which would if appropriate contain vitamins and minerals to biofortify the produce. The app would then provide tasty and nutritious recipes to help the consumer make the most of their kitchen garden bounty.
A sustainable solution: food metres, not food miles
Vertical farming is one of the solutions to making agriculture more sustainable, whilst still supply produce year round to satisfy consumer demand. Crops are cultivated without soil in a controlled, optimised environment, without the need for pesticides. They efficiently reuse resources, reducing wastage. Vertical farms have been shown to use 90% less water and deliver much higher yields per square metre of land.
The PERNUG project now wants to make this available as a kitchen garden by reducing the cost of the shelving units and designing them to fit into the domestic setting.
This also delivers other sustainability benefits; it eliminates the supply chain usually needed to deliver fresh produce to the home, cutting the environmental cost of transportation and also the amount of food wasted due to spoilage in transit. Energy is a major input into vertical farming, but with around 20% of energy in the EU coming from renewable sources and ambitious targets to increase this further, these energy inputs become increasingly sustainable.
Cutting out the food miles also maximises the nutrient levels in the produce. Post-harvest nutrient loss is a major problem especially for some micronutrients. Crops that are nutrient dense whilst growing can become nutrient poor once they’re finally eaten, something the consumer might not even be aware of. What consumers do notice is the improved taste and quality from having freshly picked produce on hand.
Homegrown personalised nutrition
The PERNUG project will support consumer’s looking to improve the quality of their diet. By testing and selecting different varieties, and experimenting on how adding nutrients to the growing media can biofortify the crops, the finished system will provide a choice of crops that the consumer can be confident will contain high levels of nutrients, with all the benefits to taste and texture from freshly harvested produce.
PERNUG will provide a new consumer-focused solution to the widespread and growing problem of micronutrient deficiency, providing fresh produce that matches each consumer’s personalised nutritional needs. A personalised nutrition solution is needed as we have different nutritional needs, which may vary with age and lifestyle. The PERNUG project will focus on iron and vitamin B12 initially. In almost every EU country, over half of women of childbearing age don’t get the recommended intake of iron, contributing to a low iron status in many women. Vitamin B12 is a micronutrient that is usually provided for in the diet by meat, with plants unable to make it. The rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets is expected to increase the number of people deficient in vitamin B12. The researchers are developing ways of biofortify crops with bioavailable, bioactive forms of both of these minerals and through the PERNUG kitchen garden provide these directly to consumers who most need them, reducing the need for expensive supplements.
Dr Paul Kroon from the Quadram Institute commented “Kitchen gardens have a range of consumer and environmental benefits compared to those obtained via conventional supply chains. But they also offer a great opportunity to deliver personalised nutrition, and in the PERNUG project we are developing kitchen gardens that grow more nutrient-rich plants and allowing users to select from carefully designed and delicious recipes that deliver the types and amounts of nutrients such as minerals and vitamins they need.”
Consumer-centred circular economy
The team will develop recipes for the consumers to use what is being grown in the kitchen garden, so that they get their Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) from freshly harvested material all through the year. Through a bespoke app being designed by the PERNUG team, these recipes will be tailored to the consumer’s personal nutrition needs. This will put the consumer right at the centre of this sustainable food production cycle, growing their own produce to match their personal needs or preferences, based on the most reliable nutritional information.
Because of this, consumers are right at the centre of the PERNUG project too. Pilot studies are putting prototype kitchen gardens into households, and their feedback will be used to design the final product. The app is also being co-designed with representative consumers from different groups from the very first stage, with focus groups being used to get insights from households.
“Rising consumer awareness of the inherent links between food, health and the environment are driving demand for more personalised and sustainable food choices. Yet, the values, focus and methods of the present food system are not aligned to help consumers achieve their individual health goals or to reduce their environmental footprint” said Lauri Kapp, founder of Studio Kapp. “This is why we are developing an intelligent home food production system that answers to the unique needs of individual consumers – a new system enabling healthy nutrition by delivering quality before quantity and by supporting prevention of food related disease through personalised nutrition.”
As well as the home kitchen, the PERNUG kitchen garden will be suitable for installation in workplaces, schools and other institutions that would value adding fresh, sustainable and highly nutritious food to the menu.
The PERNUG project brings together the complementary skills and experience of its partners
- Studio Kapp with experience in developing and marketing kitchen gardens and Internet of Things food solutions
- The Quadram Institute, a world-leading centre for food and health research with extensive expertise in personalised nutrition, nutritional assessment, micronutrients, human studies and project management
- KU Leuven, one of the world’s top-ranked research led universities with experience in consumers studies, co-creating solutions and development of consumer interfaces and apps.
The project is supported by EIT Food, the world's largest food innovation ecosystem, supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union.
For more information, please contact:
Andrew Chapple, Quadram Institute
 Nils Thorm Milman, "Dietary Iron Intake in Women of Reproductive Age in Europe: A Review of 49 Studies from 29 Countries in the Period 1993–2015", Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol. 2019, Article ID 7631306, 13 pages, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/7...