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Top 10 Foods Highest in Iron

Written by Daisy Whitbread, MScN
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Top 10 Foods Highest in Iron

Iron is an essential mineral used to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. A slight deficiency in iron causes anemia (fatigue/weakness), and a chronic deficiency can lead to organ failure. Conversely, too much iron leads to the production of harmful free radicals, and interferes with metabolism, causing damage to organs like the heart and liver.

The body is able to regulate uptake of iron, so overdose is rare and usually only occurs when people take supplements. Iron from natural food sources, like the ones listed below, are considered safe and healthy.

While iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, non-heme (plant) iron is better regulated causing less damage to the body. Foods high in iron include fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds. The current daily value (DV) for iron is 18 milligrams (mg).

Below is a list of high iron foods. For more high iron foods see:


List of High Iron Foods

A bowl of bran flakes

#1: Fortified Cereals

Iron per 3/4 CupIron per 100g
109% DV (19.6mg)376% DV (67.7mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Ralston Enriched Bran Flakes
A steak on a plate

#2: Beef (Skirt Steak)

Iron per 6oz SteakIron per 100g
52% DV (9.3mg)30% DV (5.5mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Skirt Steak
A 3oz (85g) serving of lamb provides up to 13% DV.
Oysters on a plate

#3: Shellfish (Oysters)

Iron per 3oz ServingIron per 100g
43% DV (7.8mg)51% DV (9.2mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Cooked Pacific Oysters

More Seafood High in Iron (%DV per 3oz)

Cuttlefish (51%), Whelk(48%), Octopus (45%), Mussels (32%), Abalone (18%), and Scallops (14%).
Dried Apricots

#4: Dried Fruit (Apricots)

Iron per CupIron per 100g
42% DV (7.5mg)35% DV (6.3mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Low-moisture Dried Apricots

More Dried Fruit High in Iron (%DV per cup)

Peaches (36%), Prunes (26%), Figs (17%), Raisins (17%), and Apples (7%). Note: Dried fruit is high in sugar and calories.
White Beans

#5: Large White Beans

Iron per CupIron per 100g
37% DV (6.6mg)21% DV (3.7mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Cooked Large White Beans

More Beans High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked)

Soybeans (49%), Lentils (37%), Kidney beans (29%), Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas) (26%), and Lima beans (25%), Navy (24%), Black Beans (Frijoles Negros) (20%), Pinto (20%), and Black-eyed Peas (20%).
See more vegetarian and vegan foods high in iron.
A Bowl of Spinach

#6: Spinach

Iron per Cup CookedIron per 100g
36% DV (6.4mg)20% DV (3.6mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Cooked Spinach

More Greens High in Iron (%DV per cup)

Cooked Swiss Chard (22%), Cooked Turnip Greens (16%), Raw Kale (6%), and Raw Beet Greens (5%).
See more fruits and vegetables high in iron.
Thick dark chocolate squares melting

#7: Baking Chocolate (Unsweetened)

Iron per 1oz SquareIron per 100g
28% DV (5mg)97% DV (17.4mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Unsweetened Baking Chocolate
1 cup of cocoa powder provides 66% DV. A 1.5oz (44g) candy chocolate bar provides 6% DV.
A bowl of quinoa

#8: Quinoa

Iron per CupIron per 100g
15% DV (2.8mg)8% DV (1.5mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Quinoa Cooked

Other Grains High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked)

Oatmeal (12%), Barley (12%), Rice (11%), Bulgur (10%), Buckwheat (7%), and Millet (6%). Bran from whole grains can harm absorption of iron supplements, while whole grains are a good source of iron, they should not be consumed with iron supplements.
Mushrooms

#9: White Button Mushrooms

Iron per Cup CookedIron per 100g
15% DV (2.7mg)10% DV (1.7mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Cooked White Button Mushrooms

More Mushrooms High in Iron (%DV per cup sliced)

Morels (45% DV), Oyster (6% DV), Shiitake (3% DV).
Squash and Pumpkin Seeds

#10: Squash and Pumpkin Seeds

Iron per 1oz HandfulIron per 100g
14% DV (2.5mg)49% DV (8.8mg)
Source: Nutrition Facts for Dried Pumpkin And Squash Seeds

More Nuts & Seeds High in Iron (%DV per oz)

Sesame (23%), Sunflower (11%), and Flax (9%), Cashews (9%), Pine nuts(9%), Hazelnuts (7%), Peanuts (7%), Almonds (7%), Pistachios (7%), and Macadamia (6%).

See All 200 Foods High in Iron

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Iron rich foods include fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds.

Non-Heme (Plant Based) Iron Foods

FoodServingIron
#1 Vital Wheat Gluten100 grams29% DV
(5.2mg)
#2 Artichokes1 cup28% DV
(5.1mg)
#3 Green Peas1 cup14% DV
(2.5mg)
#4 Tempeh100 grams12% DV
(2.1mg)
#5 Acorn Squashper cup cooked11% DV
(1.9mg)
#6 Dried Goji Berries5 tbsp11% DV
(1.9mg)
#7 Tofu1/5 Block10% DV
(1.9mg)
#8 Whole Wheat Bread1 slice6% DV
(1.1mg)
#9 Molasses1 tbsp5% DV
(0.9mg)
#10 Sorghum Syrup1 tbsp4% DV
(0.8mg)

Heme (Meat Based) Iron Foods

FoodServingIron
#1 Lean Chuck Pot Roast (Beef)3oz18% DV
(3.2mg)
#2 Canned Tuna1 cup (drained)15% DV
(2.7mg)
#3 Fish (Mackerel)per 6oz fillet15% DV
(2.7mg)
#4 Lamb Stew Meat3oz13% DV
(2.4mg)
#5 Turkey Meat (Dark)3oz7% DV
(1.3mg)
#6 Trout3oz fillet7% DV
(1.2mg)
#7 Bass1 fillet7% DV
(1.2mg)
#8 Chicken Breast1/2 Breast6% DV
(1mg)
#9 Pork Chops1 chop5% DV
(0.9mg)
#10 Chicken Drumstick1 leg4% DV
(0.6mg)

Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron

  • Non-heme iron comes from plant foods, heme iron comes from animal foods.
  • Heme iron can be absorbed more efficiently by the body.
  • The body can better regulate absorption of non-heme iron, helping to protect against toxic effects.

Factors which Affect Iron Absorption and Retention

  • The most important factor is your existing iron level. A low iron level will increase absorption, while a high iron level will decrease absorption. In general, you absorb 10-15% of the iron from foods. (2)
  • Meat proteins will increase the absorption of non-heme iron. (2)
  • Vitamin C will increase the absorption of non-heme iron by as much as 85%. (2,3)
  • Tannins, oxalates, polyphenols, and phytates found in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 65%. Black tea reduces absorption more than green tea and coffee. (2,3,4)
  • The following teas and beverages also inhibit iron absorption: Peppermint tea, cocoa, vervain, lime flower, chamomile, and most other herbal teas with polyphenols. (4)
  • Calcium, polyphenols, and phytates found in legumes, whole grains, and chocolate can reduce absorption of non-heme iron. (2) Further milk, and antacids can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Some protein from soy products may inhibit non-heme iron absorption. (2)
  • High fiber foods, such as whole grains, raw vegetables, and bran can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Foods or drinks with caffeine can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (4, 5)

Causes of Iron Deficiency

  • Menstruating Women - Due to blood loss during menstruation, women are at risk of iron deficiency. The greater the blood loss the greater the risk. (2)
  • Individuals with Kidney Failure - People with kidney failure, and especially those on dialysis, are at high risk of iron deficiency anemia. This is due to an inability of the kidney to create adequate amounts of the hormone erythropoietin which is necessary for red blood cell creation, and therefore, retaining iron. (2)
  • Pregnant and lactating women - A developing fetus requires a high amount of iron, likewise, there is a high amount of iron lost through breast milk after birth. (2)
  • Older infants and toddlers - Infants and toddlers require a lot of iron as they grow and so are at risk of iron deficiency. (2)
  • People with low levels of Vitamin A - Vitamin A helps move iron from storage in the body. Without adequate amounts of vitamin A the body cannot regulate iron leading to an iron deficiency. (2)
  • People with gastrointestinal disorders -Diarrhea, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders and diseases can lead to an inadequate iron absorption. (2)
  • Cancer - 60% of patients with colon cancer are iron deficient. 29-46% of patients with other cancers are also deficient in iron. (2)
  • People with Gastrointestinal Disorders - People on a restricted diet, or who have problems absorbing nutrients are at risk for iron deficiency. This includes people after bypass surgery. (2)
  • People with Heart Failure - Around 60% of people with heart failure are iron deficient. (2)

Warnings

  • People with high levels of iron in their body may have Hemochromatosis. They should avoid the high iron foods listed in this article. Hemochromatosis can lead to organ damage. Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, general weakness, weight loss, and stomach pain.
  • Liver is a high cholesterol food which should be eaten in moderate amounts and avoided by people at risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • Dark Chocolate, Pumpkin Seeds, Squash Seeds, Sesame Seeds, Dried Apricots, and Molasses are high calorie foods and should be eaten in moderate amounts by people with a high body mass index.

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Data Sources and References

  1. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28.
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet: Iron
  3. Hallberg L, Rossander L. Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals. Human Nutrition Applied Nutrition 1982 Apr;36(2):116-23.
  4. Richard F. Hurrell, Manju Reddy, and James D. Cook. Inhibition of non-heme iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. British Journal of Nutrition (1999), 81, 289-295
  5. National Library of Medicine Fact Sheet on Taking Iron Supplements.
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