This is part 2 in the series regarding Iron absorption. Check out Part 1 here: “How to design meals to better absorb Iron?” In this post, we are going to evaluate various Indian vegetarian food items to see if they are rich in iron or not.
Just to recollect, here’s the summary from part 1…
To increase Iron levels:
- Unlock Iron (reduce phytates):
- By germination of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds
- By fermentation of grains, legumes, vegetables
- Absorb Iron more:
- Remove any form of coffee and tea from your meals
- Plan meals with Vitamin C + Iron for better absorption
- Space out your Calcium rich foods from your Iron rich foods.
Ok, Now that you understand the complexities of iron absorption, we can get into the values of iron in foods.
Value of Iron in Foods
To look at the values of iron in foods, we are going to look at the Nutritive Value of Indian Foods, published by Dr. Gopalan, a top scientist and former Director of Indian Council of Medical Research, in which he calculated the nutrients in typical Indian ingredients, including Iron.
Did you know that the recommended daily requirement of Iron is 8 mg for adults? For adult women under 50, the daily requirement is more than double at 18 mg (to make up for blood losses associated with the menstrual cycle).
To get 18 mg (RDA – Recommended Daily Allowance of Iron for women) in a day…
Are the following a good source?
I will give a few examples for each category. For the whole list, please look up the link for Nutritive Value of Indian Foods
Note: All values listed below are for 100g serving
Are grains a good source? Yes!!
- Rice flakes 20 mg
- Samai 9.3mg
- Bajra 8mg
- Whole wheat flour 4.9mg
- Jowar 4.1mg
Remember to germinate or ferment your grains!! For e.g. Bajra is such a good source of iron, but also limited by its inhibitory factors. However, tamilians make a traditional koozh that helps reduce the phytic acid levels considerably.
In the table, you may notice rice bran which at 35 mg is super high in iron. However brans are quite high in phytic acid levels. So, you may end up absorbing very little of the iron in it (You can’t germinate rice bran, and fermentation wise, I have only heard of Japanese pickles made with fermented rice bran. Even in that, they don’t eat the rice bran, they just use it as a pickling bed).
Overall, Yes – Whole grains are a good source of iron.
Pulses and Legumes
Are pulses/legumes a good source? Yes
The top ones include:
- Soy Bean – 10.4 mg
- Moth Beans – 9.5 mg
- Cow Pea – 8.6 mg
- Horsegram – 6.77 mg
If you notice, Soybean has one of the highest iron content, but it is listed as one of the inhibitor factors. How does the iron from soy get extracted then? This is precisely the reason why most cultures that extensively use soy, ferment it in various forms and use them (natto, miso, tempeh etc)
The other observation I wanted to make was that among the daals, toor dal seems to have the least iron levels (1.1 mg).
So, yes – beans and legumes are a good source! Again, as with grains, try to sprout or ferment them to increase their iron absorbability.
Yes, leafy greens seems to be an excellent source of Iron. I’m listing the top few:
- Cauliflower Greens – 40 mg
- Amaranth leaves – 27.3 mg
- Chekkur Manis – 28 mg
- Garden Cress- 28.6 mg
- Bengal Gram Leaves – 23.8mg
- Manathakkali leaves – 20.5 mg
- Kuppameni – 17.3 mg
- Parsley – 17.9 mg
Dark leafy greens are absolutely a great source of iron!! However, iron bioaccessibility in greens are influenced by a complex interplay of several components including protein, ascorbic acid, β-carotene and total polyphenols.
As the nutritionist mentioned in the video above, eat the greens with sprinkle of lemon or some source of Vitamin C to increase their absorption in the body. Take a look at this traditional Greek Horta recipe made with wild greens, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
Roots and Tubers
Some roots (like beetroot, carrot) are an ok source of Iron
- Potato – 0.48 mg
- Sweet Potato – 0.21 mg
- Beetroot – 1.19 mg
- Carrot – 1.03 mg
Pair the vegetables with a squeeze of lemon or slices of green chilis for an instant hit of Vitamin C to improve iron absorption.
I’m excluding the dried vegetable numbers, since I don’t want to mix the dried and fresh version comparison
Some vegetables are a good source of iron, I am listing the top few:
- Lotus Stem dry – 60.6 mg
- Onion Stalks – 7.43 mg
- Plantain Green 6.27mg
- Cow pea pods (Payaru) – 2.5 mg
- Kankoda – 4.6 mg
- Double Beans – 2.3 mg
If you ferment the vegetables (using lactic-acid fermentation), it will increase the absorption of iron further. Here’s a recipe link to learn how to lacto-ferment vegetables.
Nuts and Seeds
These are a very high source of iron. But they also contain some of the highest phytic acid levels. Hence, it is questionable how much of the iron we end up absorbing.
- Garden Cress – 100mg
- Piyal seeds (Chironji) – 8.5mg
- Cashewnut – 5.81
- Almond – 5.09
- Sesame seeds – 9.3mg
Look at the garden cress level – at 100mg, it is one of the highest numbers I have ever seen!! Which is probably why these seeds are a big part of the post partum diet in many parts of India.
Soaking nuts and seeds is a good way to help the body absorb the minerals better.
Condiments and Spices
Many of the spices are good sources of iron.
Here are the top few:
- Turmeric 67.8mg
- Asafoetida 39.4 mg
- Mango powder 45.2 mg
- Omum 12.5 mg
- Poppy Seeds 15.9 mg
- Tamarind pulp 17 mg
However, no one eats 100g of spices in 1 meal (Remember, these iron numbers are for 100g of the ingredient). For e.g. 1 tsp of turmeric powder is around 3-5 grams. That 1 tsp (in Sambar, for example) will be further divided by 4-5 family members. Right? So, spices is not going to be your ticket out of iron deficiency.
Most fruits are not a good source of iron. Here are the top ones:
- Seetaphal 4.3 mg
- Pineapple 2.4 mg
- Water melon 7.9mg
- Peaches 2.4 mg
- Raisins 7.7 mg
Most of the other fruits pretty much fall under 1mg.
Milk and Milk Products
- Milk 0.2 mg
- Buttermilk 0.1mg
Milk and milk products are very poor sources of Iron. In fact, studies have shown that calcium (Ca) can inhibit iron (Fe) absorption. So, like the nutritionists says in the video: do not eat calcium heavy and iron heavy foods in the same meal, since they compete for absorption.
I have not included meat and fish in this list, but please feel free to use this link for a complete list of Nutrition Values.
I hope this list was helpful to start planning your meals with respect to optimizing Iron levels in your body. These numbers are a good place to start educating yourself.
In conclusion, to increase Iron levels, eat more of:
- Grains (Fermented or germinated preferably)
- Beans and Lentils (Fermented or germinated preferably)
- Green leafy vegetables (served with some form of Vit C)
- Some vegetables (lacto-ferment them if possible)
- Nuts and Seeds (soaked)
That’s it for now. Post your thoughts and comments below!!
Someone who is in a diabetes reversal program recently told me that Ragi being good for diabetics is one of the most prevalent food myths! While researching ai came across your blogpost– you clarified each aspect of why to chose a certain flour (if you’re keeping the GI index in mind) SO well! I instantly subscribed. Thank you so much for your research 🙂
And now I am up at an ungodly hour consuming all your posts! 🤭
Haha… thanks!! So sweet of you!!