The findings suggest that probiotic products, which have become one of the best-selling health foods in recent years, may have yet another important benefit beyond their positive effect on gut health and the immune system.
Iron is one of the most frequently lacking nutrients in populations not just in the developing world but also in developed countries.
Iron deficiency with anaemia is said to affect about a quarter of infants worldwide and twice as many have iron deficiency without anaemia.
Adults, particularly menstruating women, are also prone to the problem. Around 10 per cent of young women in developed countries are iron deficient, while almost 24 per cent of pregnant mothers in Europe and more than half the pregnant women in the Americas are anaemic, according to data from the WHO.
But the problem is not easily resolved by adopting an iron-rich diet. The body has difficulty in absorbing iron, creating opportunities for products that can enhance the mineral's absorption.
While there has been some discussion about the ability of probiotic bacteria to digest phytate, a common component of foods that binds with iron to prevent its absorption, there has been little work done in this area.
Per Bengtsson, chief executive of Probi, believes the randomized, double-blind, crossover study is the first to show that a probiotic bacteria can double iron absorption.
The firm conducted the trial on its Lp299v bacteria that is found in products like Skane's ProViva fruit drink.
For four days 24 healthy women aged 21-29 consumed drinks with or without the Lp299v bacteria. After 18 days, the women who were given the Lp299v bacteria culture showed a significantly improved iron-absorption capacity compared with the other women in the study.
The company presented the results to doctors and nutrition companies attending a congress organized by the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism (ESPEN) in Brussels yesterday.
"These are quite remarkable results so we are going to try to develop a product to market this benefit," Bengtsson told NutraIngredients.com.
He explained that Skane and other firms already using the Lp299v bacteria in supplements will not be able to allude to the findings as the researchers used a slightly different vehicle for the bacteria in the study to those products already commercially available.
There is also more work to be done on identifying how the bacteria enhance absorption.
"We thought it could have something to do with the phytate but we saw no phytate activity in the study although we cannot exclude this mechanism," said Bengtsson.
The researchers used four different test meals so they could exclude the impact of phytate as well as other factors that influence iron absorption like pH and lactic acid.
They also tested identical products except that in the control group the product had been pasteurized, killing the probiotic bacteria.
"So we know that any influence on iron absorption is coming from the live bacteria," added Bengtsson.
He said he has already seen interest in future applications from partners.
"Achieving increased mineral absorption from foods is a medical benefit that can be easily communicated to a large customer group," he explained.
It is certainly likely to be easier than communicating benefits to gut health, or trying to prove the benefits to the immune system, the main avenues for probiotic applications to date.