BACKGROUND: Direct supplementation or food fortification with iron are two public health initiatives intended to reduce the prevalence of iron deficiency (ID) and iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) in 4-24-month-old infants. In most high-income countries where IDA prevalence is < 15%, the recommended daily intake levels of iron from supplements and/or consumption of fortified food products are at odds with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines that recommend shorter-term (3 months/year) supplementation only in populations with IDA prevalence > 40%. Emerging concerns about delayed neurological effects of early-life iron overexposure have raised questions as to whether recommended guidelines in high-income countries are unnecessarily excessive. This systematic review will gather evidence from supplementation/fortification trials, comparing health outcomes in studies where iron-replete children did or did not receive additional dietary iron; and determine if replete children at study outset were not receiving additional iron show changes in haematological indices of ID/IDA over the trial duration. METHODS: We will perform a systematic review of the literature, including all studies of iron supplementation and/or fortification, including study arms with confirmed iron-replete infants at the commencement of the trial. This includes both dietary iron intervention or placebo/average dietary intakes. One reviewer will conduct searches in electronic databases of published and ongoing trials (Medline, Web of Science, Scopus, CENTRAL, EBSCO [e.g. CINAHL Complete, Food Science and Technology Abstracts], Embase, ClinicalTrials.gov, ClinicalTrialsRegister.eu and who.it/trialsearch), digital theses and dissertations (WorldCat, Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations, DART-Europe E-theses Portal, Australasian Digital Theses Program, Theses Canada Portal and ProQuest). For eligible studies, one reviewer will use a data extraction form, and a second reviewing entered data for accuracy. Both reviewers will independently perform quality assessments before qualitative and, if appropriate, quantitative synthesis as a meta-analysis. We will resolve any discrepancies through discussion or consult a third author to resolve discrepancies. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses statement will be used as the basis for reporting. DISCUSSION: Recommended iron supplementation and food fortification practices in high-income countries have been criticised for being both excessive and based on outdated or underpowered studies. This systematic review will build a case for revisiting iron intake guidelines for infants through the design of new trials where health effects of additional iron intake in iron-replete infants are the primary outcome. SYSTEMATIC REVIEW REGISTRATION: PROSPERO CRD42018093744.
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