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Zinc deficiencies in school children 'may contribute to mental health issues'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

A recent University of Otago trial showed that children taking micronutrient supplements such as vitamins and minerals could be a safe therapy for children with ADHD.

"This study supports the findings of other researchers which have shown that vitamin and minerals and amino acids play a major part in overall cognitive function and mental wellbeing of Schoolchildren" said Sir Ray Avery.

Sadly, many New Zealand school children go to school without breakfast and lunch, and there is a significant body of scientific evidence this adversely affects their mood and executive learning skills.

When kids are hungry, they get angry and disruptive but just filling them up with carbohydrate and sugar-rich fast foods and snack foods may not provide the essential vitamins and amino acids essential for healthy physiological and brain development.

Given the clear need for micronutrients and amino acids in the staple diets of New Zealand schoolchildren, we set about inventing the Amigo Bar, New Zealand’s first five stars rated supplementary food bar specifically designed for kids between the age of 4 - 14 years.

I often get asked, "Why do we need to give our kids Amigo Bars supplemented with micronutrients and amino acids, don’t kids get all of these from their normal diets?"

Based on current research, my response is "probably not.

Let’s take a look at one micronutrient, Zinc in the New Zealand context.

Zinc is an essential element for healthy physiological and mental development. It’s required for the functions of over 100 enzymes, metabolises nutrients, boosts your immune system and maintains your sense of taste and smell.

Zinc also regulates the storage and release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and GABA known as our "happy" hormones.

Numerous clinical studies have shown that Zinc micronutrient deficiency adversely affects mood ,executive cognitive skills and memory functions.

The key findings of a National Children’s Nutritional Survey conducted in 2002 showed that up to 17% of children under the age of 14 had an inadequate intake of Zinc.

A further study (Br J Nutrition 2011 Gibson RS) reported that 21% of Pacific children in New Zealand exhibited low Zinc serum levels.

A New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey conducted in 2008/2009 by the Ministry of Health confirmed that one in four (25%) of New Zealanders aged over 15 had an inadequate intake of zinc.

There was also a decrease in the Zinc intake for this group from 1997 - 2008/2009 so things are getting worse concerning our zinc nutritional status.

Zinc can’t be retained in the body, so a healthy balanced diet which includes daily consumption of foods rich in zinc is vital. Zinc-rich foods include shellfish (especially oysters), red meat, lentils, chickpeas and oatmeal.

So, can we get all of our daily zinc requirements from the foods we eat?

Well Governmental research suggest that many people don’t get enough zinc from their normal diets.

There is also increasing evidence that our staple food stocks may not be as rich in micronutrients as previously thought.

Hidden soil micronutrient deficiencies are far more widespread than generally suspected and seriously impact on the quality of food for human consumption.

Sillanpää (1990) estimated that of the important agricultural soils of the world, 49% are deficient in zinc and the human population that depends on these same soils for the production of foods may also be deficient in zinc.

Zinc deficiency is, therefore, the highest priority among micronutrients for agriculture to address. An agricultural solution to zinc deficiency in humans is all the more compelling because mild to moderate zinc deficiency in humans is very difficult to diagnose in the general population.

In the New Zealand context, a global study conducted in 1982 by Food and Agriculture Organisation of The United Nations to determine the micronutrient content of soils around the world showed the "lowest values of zinc were obtained from samples originating from the North and South Island" of New Zealand.

New Zealand farmers are well aware of the problems of low zinc in New Zealand soils. For example, farmers conduct routine seasonal drenching of sheep with zinc compounds to help support their immune system against issues like facial eczema. Pigs and chickens routinely receive dietary supplements rich in zinc to support healthy growth.

So low concentrations of zinc in New Zealand soils must inevitably impact on the zinc concentrations of our agricultural food stocks and our micronutrient uptake from food crops.

If Sillanpää is right and half of New Zealanders may be suffering from zinc deficiency should we all be rushing to purchase zinc supplements to support our healthy physiological and mental development?

Well, no. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you.

Parents often provide their children with gummy type vitamin and mineral supplements because this is the only way they can get their children to take nutritional supplements.

However, the gummy supplements are not ideal because they don’t account for the vitamins and minerals that may be present in the children’s diets and kids can easily overdose because these products are perceived as sweets.

Adding vitamin and micronutrients to a healthy five stars rating ready-to-eat bar formulation packed with protein and fibre is a much more natural and healthy micronutrient delivery system, which is why we invented the Amigo Bars.

When we formulated the Amigo Bar, we analysed the levels of zinc and other micronutrients found in the natural ingredients of the Amigo Bar such as Pea Protein and Oats. We then "topped up" the concentration of zinc to provide enough zinc in the Amigo Bars to ensure that New Zealand school children between the ages of four and fourteen would not suffer from Zinc micronutrient deficiency if they consumed one Amigo Bar a day.

The reality is that for many families in New Zealand meeting the recommended daily intake of zinc is a challenge.

The average recommended dietary intake of zinc for children between the ages of 4 -14 is around 8mg per day.

To meet this daily dietary intake, children would have to consume foods which are rich sources of zinc. Sources of zinc include seafood (especially oysters, lobster, shrimp, mussels and crab), red meat including lamb’s liver.

Cereal grains, legumes and nuts are also good sources of zinc, but they are high in phytates which reduce zinc absorption. (Mann and Truswell, 2007)

In low-income households, these high-end zinc-rich foods may not be on the menu having being replaced by low-cost fast foods and snacks which are low in zinc.

Amigo Bars are a safe and effective way to give New Zealand children zinc supplementation and turn hangry faces into happy faces by supporting the development of neuron transmitters and growing healthy bodies and minds.

Amigo bars are a good supplement to complement a healthy diet and are not a meal replacement.

To learn more about the Amigo School nutrition Program go to

Sir Ray Avery

Sir Ray is a Pharmaceutical Scientist and as Technical Director of Douglas Pharmaceuticals was responsible for the development of the Karitane Infant formulas, now marketed under the Karicare brand.

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