Iron and vitamin C: the perfect pair?

Consuming iron and vitamin C together may be better than alone, increasing absorption of non-heme (plant) sources of iron.

Iron is a vital nutrient that contributes to the correct functioning of the human body. It is found in red blood cells and transports oxygen throughout the body through the blood stream. Additionally, it removes waste such as carbon dioxide, transporting it to the lungs to be exhaled.

Iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States. It is most common among young children and pregnant women due to rapid growth, girls/women of child bearing age due to menstruation and vegetarians. Signs of iron deficiency include fatigue, pale skin and fingernails, weakness, dizziness, frequent headaches and an inflamed tongue (glossitis). However, these symptoms only arise when iron deficiency has reached the classification of anemia; where the iron stores have become so depleted there is not enough iron containing red blood cells to transport the oxygen the body needs. It is important to get iron levels tested regularly in order to catch a deficiency before it progresses to anemia.

Iron is found in foods such as meats, beans (black, pinto, kidney, soy and lentils), dark green leafy vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Iron originating from meats (heme iron) and plant sources (non-heme iron) are absorbed differently; the body does not absorb the plant sources as well. It has been found that vitamin C can increase the amount of iron that the body absorbs from plant sources, the non-heme iron. Vitamin C is found in foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, green and red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kiwis.

Try pairing the mineral iron with vitamin C to have maximal absorption from non-heme (plant) sources. Breakfast is a great time to consume this dynamic duo! Add sliced strawberries to oatmeal, or have a glass of orange juice alongside a bowl of iron fortified cereal. To be considered a good source of a mineral, a food must contain 20 percent or more of the recommended daily allowance. Take a look at the nutrition label of your cereal to ensure it contains enough iron. Many contain up to 100 percent!

While it is always preferable to obtain nutrients from real food, the source of the vitamin C does not impact how well the iron is absorbed. For example, vitamin C obtained from eating a grapefruit will have the same impact on increasing iron absorption as that of vitamin C coming from a multi-vitamin supplement.

For more information on health and nutrition visit the Michigan State University Extension website at

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