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Iron: A Quick Guide to This Nutrient of Concern

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Here’s everything you need to know about the best sources of iron, how much iron we actually need, and how to label iron under the new nutrition label regulations

Iron Declared a Nutrient of Public Health Concern

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 has identified five nutrients of public health concern for Americans: dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron.1 While the first four nutrients were found to be underconsumed by the general population, iron is a nutrient of public health concern only for specific segments of the population—young children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age. Due to the higher iron requirements of these groups, they are at an increased risk of health problems from insufficient iron intakes. 

 

Nutrition Label Changes for Iron

The new nutrition label regulations have brought about a long list of changes, ranging from new mandatory label nutrients (vitamin D and potassium) to updated serving sizes to the inclusion of added sugars on the nutrition label. There have even been updates to the Daily Values (DVs) for several nutrients.

For iron, the DV will remain at 18 mg under the new nutrition label regulations. However, the amount of iron (as for all minerals and vitamins listed on the nutrition label) must now be declared in terms of weight, in addition to % DV. Iron content must be reported in milligrams (as "mg").

Why We Need Iron

The structure of iron makes it an essential component of both hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is a red blood cell protein that’s able to carry oxygen and release it wherever it's needed. Myoglobin performs a similar function, but is found in the muscle tissue rather than in the blood.

Iron plays a key role in a number of the body’s functions, including:

  • Transport of oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
  • Metabolism and energy production
  • Cell division
  • Growth and development
  • Synthesis of certain hormones
  • Synthesis of connective tissues

The main health risk associated with insufficient iron intake is iron deficiency anemia. The symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, headaches, dizziness, cold hands and feet, and even heart palpitations. For children, iron deficiency can also negatively impact growth and development and has been linked to stunting and learning difficulties.

Classroom with children raising their hands.

How Much Iron Do We Really Need?

In the case of iron, the DV of 18 mg has been set much higher than is actually required for most population groups. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for females ages 19 to 50 years is 18 mg, while all other age/gender brackets are lower, with the exception of pregnant women. The expectation is that setting the DV this high will cover the iron needs of most people. 

The RDA for males 19 and older and for females 51 and older is only 8 mg. Menstruation and pregnancy greatly increase iron needs. In fact, the RDA for pregnant women is so high (at 27 mg) that iron supplementation is normally recommended.

Occasionally, there is not enough data available to determine an RDA for every age/gender bracket. For iron, this is the case for ages 0 to 6 months. When this occurs, an Adequate Intake (AI) value is used instead. The AI for babies is typically determined by evaluating the average nutrient content of breast milk for an assumed volume of intake.

Recommended Iron Intakes for Different Groups

Age Male Female Pregnant Lactating
0-6 months 0.27 mg 0.27 mg    
7-12 months 11 mg 11 mg    
1-3 years 7 mg 7 mg    
4-8 years 10 mg 10 mg    
9-13 years 8 mg 8 mg    
14-18 years 11 mg 15 mg 27 mg 10 mg
19-50 years 8 mg 18 mg 27 mg 9 mg
51+ years 8 mg 8 mg    

 

Chalkboard with iron written surrounded by fruits and vegetables. Food Sources of Iron

The iron we consume can be divided into two main categories—heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the iron that's bound to hemoglobin. It’s found in meat, poultry, and seafood and is more bioavailable than non-heme iron. These animal products also contain non-heme iron, which is actually present in greater amounts than the heme iron. 

Eggs and plant-based foods contain only non-heme iron. While beans and dark leafy greens are some of the better-known sources of non-heme iron, it can be found in a wide variety of food types. In addition, fortified foods like breakfast cereals are often excellent sources of non-heme iron, with some providing up to 100% DV of iron.

Good sources of heme iron include:

  • Lean meats
  • Poultry
  • Seafood

Foods naturally rich in non-heme iron include:

  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Baked potatoes
  • Cocoa powder and dark chocolate
  • Quinoa
  • Eggs

Products commonly fortified or enriched with iron include: 

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Breads
  • Pasta
  • Flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Nutrition bars and shakes
  • Infant formulas

Tips on Fortifying with Iron

Fortified products play an important role in the diet for those who are most vulnerable to iron deficiency. For manufacturers, this provides a key opportunity to fill a need, especially in product lines that target these groups, such as children’s breakfast cereals or nutrition bars for women.

When fortifying with iron, there are a number of factors to consider when designing a custom nutrient premix—including usage level, bioavailability, solubility, taste impact, reactivity, and cost. It’s often necessary to balance these factors. For example, ferric orthophosphate may not be the most bioavailable or soluble of the iron fortification options, but it’s less reactive and has less aftertaste than most. 

Taste impact and reactivity can also be minimized with microencapsulation. This process forms a protective coating around the ferric salt which disguises any metallic taste and also prevents it from reacting with other nutrients (e.g., catalyzing lipid oxidation). 

Make It Stronger with Iron

By keeping the nutrients of concern top of mind, manufacturers can make a real difference in the health of Americans. If you're interested in learning more, download our Guide to Nutrients of Concern today!

References

1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Ed. (2015). Retrieved from https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/

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