Iron is present in many foods, it is the fourth most abundant micronutrient in soil and is found in all meats, particularly red meats, liver and seafood. Iron is essential for humans, it builds haemoglobins and other oxygen transport proteins in the blood and muscles. Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency worldwide and is most common in pregnant women. A shortage of iron leads to headaches, feelings of fatigue and paleness in the skin because of a reduction in oxygen delivered to the brain and other organs. Iron is also essential in the production of many hormones and plays a role in immunity and growth.
Iron is also toxic and so the body has very complex mechanisms designed to keep an appropriate balance of iron. The amount of iron in our food that is absorbed by our bodies ranges from about 5-35%. Iron comes in two main forms – heme iron which comes from animal meats and non-heme iron, which is present in plants. Heme-iron is absorbed much more readily into the body, while non-heme iron is harder to absorb and depends on other factors.
Vitamin C helps the body to absorb non-heme iron and can even overcome foods which inhibit non-heme iron absorption such as tea, coffee, spinach, nuts, whole grains, soy, oregano and other foods containing oxalates (compounds derived from oxalic acid), polyphenols and phytate. Vitamin A and beta-carotene help release iron stores in the body, and so eating carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, squash, red peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, oranges and peaches can also help avoid iron deficiency. Iron is so important to the body that it has becoming very good at reusing it.
So, although meats and seafood (particularly oysters and white fish) are a great source of iron, many plant sources are also rich in iron (particularly, cashew nuts, kidney and white beans and leafy greens). However, these plant foods must be combined with foods high in vitamin C like broccoli, potatoes, chillies and peppers in order for the body to absorb the plant based iron. Meat eaters are less likely to need to take such precautions however, as the iron present in meat is more readily absorbed by the body.
Canadian health workers used Lucky Iron Fish, smiling fish made from iron, to help combat iron deficiency in Cambodia. The fish were added to cooking pots along with a couple of drops of lemon juice (to aid iron absorption). Iron cooking pots can also be used to give food an extra iron boost.
Red wine and Guiness also contain some iron. Red wine has 2.25mg per 150ml, however at only 0.3mg per pint, you would have to drink an awful lot of Guiness to make up the recommended daily amount of iron – 8.7mg for men (18-50 years old) and 14.8mg for women of the same age.