A Quick Guide

Here’s everything you need to know about the best sources of iron, how much iron we actually need, and how to label iron under the new nutrition label regulations.

Iron Declared a Nutrient of Public Health Concern

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 has identified five nutrients of public health concern for Americans: dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron.1 While the first four nutrients were found to be underconsumed by the general population, iron is a nutrient of public health concern only for specific segments of the population — young children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age. Due to the higher iron requirements of these groups, it is more likely that their intakes are insufficient.

Nutrition Label Changes for Iron

The new nutrition label regulations have brought about a long list of changes, ranging from new mandatory label nutrients (vitamin D and potassium), to updated serving sizes and the inclusion of added sugars on the nutrition label. There have even been updates to the Daily Values (DVs) for several nutrients.

Although the DV of iron will remain at 18 mg under the new nutrition label regulations, there are still changes that will impact labeling. Going forward, the amount of iron (as for all minerals and vitamins listed on the nutrition label) must be declared in terms of weight, in addition to % DV. Iron content must be reported in milligrams (as “mg”).

Why We Need Iron

The structure of iron makes it an essential component of both hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is a red blood cell protein that’s able to carry oxygen and release it wherever it’s needed. Myoglobin performs a similar function, but is found in the muscle tissue rather than in the blood.

Iron plays a key role in a number of the body’s functions, including2,3:

  • Transport of oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
  • Metabolism and energy production
  • Cell division
  • Growth and development
  • Synthesis of certain hormones
  • Synthesis of connective tissues

The main health risk associated with insufficient iron intake is iron deficiency anemia. The symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, headaches, dizziness, cold hands and feet, and even heart palpitations. For children, iron deficiency can also negatively impact growth and development and has been linked to stunting and learning difficulties.4

How Much Iron Do We Really Need?

In the case of iron, the DV of 18 mg has been set much higher than is actually required for most population groups. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for females ages 19 to 50 years is 18 mg, while all other age/gender brackets are lower, with the exception of pregnant women. The expectation is that setting the DV this high will cover the iron needs of most people.

For example, the RDA for males 19 and older and for females 51 and older is only 8 mg. Menstruation and pregnancy greatly increase iron needs. In fact, the RDA for pregnant women is so high (at 27 mg) that iron supplementation is normally recommended.

Occasionally, there is not enough data available to determine an RDA for every age/gender bracket. For iron, this is the case for ages 0 to 6 months. When this occurs, an Adequate Intake (AI) value is used instead. The AI for babies is typically determined by evaluating the average nutrient content of breast milk for an assumed volume of intake.

Food Sources of Iron

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Tips on Fortifying with Iron

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Iron – A Nutrient of Concern

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Formulating for Success

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