Top 10 Foods Highest in Iron

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Top 10 Foods Highest in Iron

Iron is an essential mineral used to transport oxygen around the body in the form of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. A deficiency in iron causes anemia (low red blood cell count, which leads to symptoms like fatigue and weakness). Over time, iron deficiency can lead to organ failure. (1,2)

Conversely, too much iron leads to the production of harmful free radicals. This interferes with metabolism, causing damage to organs like the heart and liver. (3,4)

The body regulates iron absorption, so overdose from foods is rare. Iron from natural food sources, like the ones listed below, is considered safe for most people. However, overdose can occur when people take iron supplements.

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). (5)

Below is a list of the top 10 iron food sources.

Printable One Page Sheet

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Printable one-page list of iron rich foods including: fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds.

Iron Rich Foods by Nutrient Density (Most Iron per 100 grams)

1. Dried Herbs (Thyme, Parsley, Spearmint, Black Pepper, Marjoram) 100 grams 687% DV
2. Fortified Cereals 100 grams 376% DV
3. Spirulina (Dried Seaweed) 100 grams 158% DV
4. Bran 100 grams 103% DV
5. Cocoa Powder 100 grams 86% DV
6. Liver (Chicken Liver) 100 grams 72% DV
7. Caviar (Fish Roe) 100 grams 66% DV
8. Shellfish (Oysters) 100 grams 51% DV
9. Wheat Germ 100 grams 35% DV
10. Cashews (Dry Roasted) 100 grams 33% DV

Non-Heme (Plant Based) Iron Foods

1. Vital Wheat Gluten 100 grams 29% DV
2. Artichokes 1 cup 28% DV
3. Green Peas 1 cup 14% DV
4. Tempeh 100 grams 12% DV
5. Acorn Squash per cup cooked 11% DV
6. Dried Goji Berries 5 tbsp 11% DV
7. Tofu 1/5 Block 10% DV
8. Whole Wheat Bread 1 slice 6% DV
9. Molasses 1 tbsp 5% DV
10. Sorghum Syrup 1 tbsp 4% DV

Heme (Meat Based) Iron Foods

1. Lean Chuck Pot Roast (Beef) 3oz 18% DV
2. Fish (Mackerel) per 6oz fillet 15% DV
3. Canned Tuna 1 can (drained) 14% DV
4. Lamb Stew Meat 3oz 13% DV
5. Turkey Meat (Dark) 3oz 7% DV
6. Trout 3oz fillet 7% DV
7. Bass 1 fillet 7% DV
8. Chicken Breast 1/2 Breast 6% DV
9. Pork Chops 1 chop 5% DV
10. Chicken Drumstick 1 leg 4% DV

Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron

  • Non-heme iron comes from plant foods, while heme iron comes from animal foods. (9)
  • Heme iron can be absorbed more efficiently by the body, with an absorption rate of 15% to 35%. Non-heme iron from plants is absorbed at a rate of 2% to 20%. (9)
  • The body can better regulate the absorption of non-heme iron, helping to protect against potential toxic effects. (10)

How much Iron Do You Need Each Day?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron ranges from 7mg to 27mg per day. The daily value for iron is 18mg per day. (5)

Life StageRDA
0-6 months old0.27mg*
7-12 months old11mg
1-3 years old7mg
4-8 years old10mg
9-13 years old8mg
14-18 years old11mg
19-50 years old8mg
50+ years old8mg
9-13 years old8mg
14-18 years old15mg
19-50 years old18mg
50+ years old8mg
14-18 years old27mg
18+ years old27mg
14-18 years old10mg
18+ years old9mg
*The amounts for children less than 6 months old is the adequate intake (AI) not RDA.
Source: Dietary Reference Intakes for Iron.

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 2% to 20% of the iron from foods. (9)
  • Meat proteins will increase the absorption of non-heme iron. (9)
  • Vitamin C will increase the absorption of non-heme iron by as much as 85%. (11,12)
  • 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. (13,14)
  • The following teas and beverages also inhibit iron absorption: Peppermint tea, cocoa, vervain, lime flower, chamomile, and most other herbal teas containing polyphenols. (14)

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. (15)
  • Individuals with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) - People with kidney disease, and especially those on dialysis, are at high risk of iron deficiency anemia. (16)
  • 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. (17)
  • Older infants and toddlers - Infants and toddlers require a lot of iron as they grow and so are at risk of iron deficiency. (18)
  • 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. (19)

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Data Sources and References

  1. Uniyal N, Sethi Y, Chopra H, Dhawan M, Emran TB. Iron deficiency Int J Surg. 2022 Sep;105:106871. doi: 10.1016/j.ijsu.2022.106871. Epub 2022 Aug 29. 36049619
  2. Crider K, Williams J, Qi YP, Gutman J, Yeung L, Mai C, Finkelstain J, Mehta S, Pons-Duran C, Menéndez C, Moraleda C, Rogers L, Daniels K, Green P. Iron Deficiency Anemia: An Updated Review Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022 Feb 1;2(2022):CD014217. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD014217. 36321557
  3. Sebastiani G, Pantopoulos K. Iron metabolism and toxicity Metallomics. 2011 Oct;3(10):971-86. doi: 10.1039/c1mt00082a. Epub 2011 Sep 7. 21901209
  4. Ponka P. Hemochromatosis Semin Hematol. 2002 Oct;39(4):249-62. doi: 10.1053/shem.2002.35638. 12382200
  5. U.S.FDA - Daily Value on the New Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels
  6. Hallberg L, Rossander L, Skånberg AB. The inhibitory effect of bran on iron absorption in man Am J Clin Nutr. 1987 May;45(5):988-96. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/45.5.988. 3034044
  7. Eagling T, Wawer AA, Shewry PR, Zhao FJ, Fairweather-Tait SJ. Higher bioavailability of iron from whole wheat bread compared with iron-fortified white breads in caco-2 cell model: an experimental study J Agric Food Chem. 2014 Oct 22;62(42):10320-5. doi: 10.1021/jf5026295. Epub 2014 Oct 13. 25275535
  8. Jamieson JA, Neufeld A. Grain Products Are a Top Source of Energy and Nutrients among Nova Scotian Adults Following a Gluten-Free Diet PeerJ. 2020 Jul 27;8:e9590. doi: 10.7717/peerj.9590. eCollection 2020. 33194333
  9. Morris ER. Iron nutrition and absorption: dietary factors which impact iron bioavailability Fed Proc. 1983 Apr;42(6):1716-20. 6299808
  10. Fang X, Wei J, Min J, Wang F. Dietary intake of heme iron and risk of cardiovascular disease: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2020 Jun 9;30(6):1053-1055. doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2020.03.007. Epub 2020 Mar 20. 32247532
  11. Hurrell RF, Reddy M, Cook JD. Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals Br J Nutr. 1999 Apr;81(4):289-95. 10999016
  12. Monsen ER. The role of vitamin C in iron absorption J Am Diet Assoc. 1988 Jul;88(7):786-90. 3290310
  13. Hurrell RF, Reddy M, Cook JD. Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals Br J Nutr. 1999 Apr;81(4):289-95. 10999016
  14. Brune M, Rossander L, Hallberg L. Inhibition of non-haem iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages Eur J Clin Nutr. 1989 Aug;43(8):547-57. 2598894
  15. Garcia-Casal MN, Peña-Rosas JP, De-Regil LM, Gwirtz JA, Pasricha SR. A Review of the Risk Factors for Iron Deficiency Anaemia among Adolescents in Developing Countries Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Dec 22;12(12):CD010187. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010187.pub2. 30577080
  16. Chung M, Moorthy D, Hadar N, Salvi P, Iovin RC, Lau J. Iron Deficiency Anemia in Chronic Kidney Disease Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2012 Oct. Report No.: 12(13)-EHC140-EF. 23230575
  17. Kirthan JPA, Somannavar MS. Iron Deficiency Anemia in Pregnancy Ann Hematol. 2023 Oct 3. doi: 10.1007/s00277-023-05481-2. Online ahead of print. 37787837
  18. Lozoff B, Georgieff MK. Iron deficiency and child development Semin Pediatr Neurol. 2006 Sep;13(3):158-65. doi: 10.1016/j.spen.2006.08.004. 17101454
  19. Abizari AR, Azupogo F, Brouwer ID. The influence of vitamin A status on iron-deficiency anaemia in anaemic adolescent schoolgirls in Myanmar PLoS One. 2017 Feb 2;12(2):e0170747. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0170747. eCollection 2017. 28152069
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