Field of Science

Elemental Tales: Reduced Iron

In the 1970's I was a TV news junky. Dinner was typically late - my dad commuted an hour plus from LA in those days - and my mother would kick me and my homework off the table a bit before 6. I'd duck into the den to get the update on the war (Vietnam, not Iraq!) that my friends' older brothers were fighting. Even then, I was clearly not the advertisers' target demographic. The ads ran the gamut from DentuGrip to Phillip's Milk of Magnesia. And of course, Geritol - exhausted wives re-energized by curing their "iron poor blood" with Geritol, much to their husbands' delight ("My wife. I think I'll keep her!")

More than one in ten adult women (12-49) in the US do suffer from "iron poor blood" or more technically iron deficiency anemia, and world-wide it is the most common nutritional deficiency. (By some estimates two-thirds of pregnant women in developing countries are anemic, primarily due to lack of iron in their diets.)

The body does an impressive job of holding onto the iron it needs not only for synthesizing the oxygen carrying protein hemoglobin, but for enzymes used in other key processes. Total body stores of iron run from about 2 to 4 grams, about two-thirds circulating around in hemoglobin, and twenty percent held in reserve in the bone marrow. The daily loss ranges from 1 milligram to about 1.5 mg in women of child-bearing age. Which begs the question, why is the FDA's recommended dietary allowance of iron 20 mg?

The answer has much to do with the ability of the body to extract iron from various sources. The best form of iron, in terms of its bioavailability, is heme-iron, or iron bound to the plate-like heme structure found in hemoglobin. Non-heme iron, found in plants like the iconic iron source spinach, is tougher for the body to extract and use - estimates are only 10 to 15% of the iron can be absorbed. So to get that 1 mg a day, you need to consume about 10 mg a day. If spinach is not your cup of tea, try dark chocolate; there's 2.3 mg of iron in a 100 gram bar, about the same as in the identically sized serving of spinach.

Lots of Americans get their iron from fortified cereals. Read your box of Total. You'll find that a cup gives you 18 mg of iron. Check the ingredients and you'll notice that it's added in the form of reduced iron. Reduced iron is not iron on a diet, but iron is the pure metallic form. That's right, there's tiny iron filings in your cereal. If you're feeling experimental, toss a couple of cups with milk into the blender, then run a magnet through it. You'll pick up the filings on the magnet. The acid in your stomach turns the metal into an ionic form (Fe2+).

Better yet, cook in cast iron. Scramble your eggs in a cast iron frying pan and you can triple the iron content (from 1.5 mg to almost 5 mg). Cook something acidic, like spaghetti sauce and you can up the iron content by a factor of ten.

Husbands of tired wives might thus consider a nice box of dark chocolate covered apricots rather than replacing the window shades with ads for might cure more ills than just iron deficiency. I would not advise a cast iron frying pan with a bow!

Dried apricots have twice the iron content of spinach and are much tastier when drenched in chocolate.

The heme figure is taken from here.


  1. Well written and very interesting, but it makes a victim of Hemochromatosis - the world's most common genetic disorder - a bit hot under the collar.
    Sexual dysfuntion can also be caused ny an overload of iron, and left untreated, HH can be fatal... I woul like to recommend a book called "The Bronze Killer:New Edition, which I have just read.

  2. Great article!
    I too want to point-out that for most of us well-nourished adults in prosperous nations, the problem of getting enough iron in our diet just doesn't apply. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that most men and women over 50 should try to avoid iron, even occasionally give blood to keep their body stores from becoming excessive.

  3. Do the iron filings perform a dissolving
    metal reduction in the stomach?


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