Whether you live an active lifestyle or you keep an active mind, many Americans still struggle to achieve an adequate intake of all the essential vitamins and minerals. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, this includes dietary fiber, vitamin D, as well as the minerals potassium, calcium, and iron.1 Iron fortification can be a special challenge due to its taste and reactivity. Learn how options in bioavailability and microencapsulation can create successful iron-fortified foods and beverages that meet consumers' needs.
Iron – A Nutrient of Concern
Of the vitamins and minerals identified as under-consumed by Americans, vitamin D, potassium, and calcium are also considered to be nutrients of public health concern due to the negative health impacts associated with their under consumption. Iron has also been identified as a nutrient of concern, but only for specific segments of the population, including young children, women of childbearing age, and pregnant women.
The primary health risk associated with an inadequate iron intake is iron deficiency anemia. Since iron is necessary to form hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body, a deficiency of iron can have a number of effects, such as:
- Cold hands and feet
- Headaches and dizziness
- Heart palpitations
Iron also plays a role in immunity and wound healing. In children, sufficient iron is essential for proper growth and development as deficiencies have been linked to learning difficulties and stunting.
Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron
There are two main types of iron that we consume—heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is bound to hemoglobin and is better absorbed than non-heme iron. Meat contains both heme and non-heme iron, although most of the iron in meat is non-heme.
Plant-based foods and eggs contain only non-heme iron. Consuming vitamin C (ascorbic acid) with non-heme iron greatly increases its absorption. Calcium hinders the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron, which may be why high milk intake by children has been linked to iron deficiency.
Iron Naturally Present in Foods
Food sources that naturally contain heme iron include:
- Red meats
Naturally rich sources of non-heme iron include:
- Baked potatoes
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dried apricots
Fortifying with Iron
Large-scale iron fortification in the U.S. began in the 1940s when the FDA established a standard of identity for enriched flour to help address nutrient deficiencies in the population. Today, there is a variety of products commonly fortified with iron, such as:
- Breakfast cereals
- Corn meal
- Nutrition bars
- Nutrition shakes
- Infant formulas
In other parts of the world, there have even been pilot programs to test the benefits of using iron-fortified salt, sugar, curry powder, and soy sauce.