This is an update to a popular blog written years ago. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem much has changed with regard to the iron fortification in cereal. Iron requirements for humans have not changed, and many cereals still have way too much iron for certain people. Many people do not need a lot of iron. Those people include all adult males and women who are menopausal. Women of childbearing age require the most iron and iron fortification mandates that this be taken into consideration when setting the amount of iron added to a food in the fortification process. So, some people win on this matter (women that need iron) but, other people are eating cereal and inadvertently eating way too much iron!
Excess iron from cereal and foods in general
Iron is toxic in large amounts. Once absorbed inside the body, it’s difficult to excrete. A healthy person will be able to defend against too much iron absorption in numerous ways. Typically, the body can prevent too much iron from being absorbed by trapping in intestinal cells and then shedding it through digestion. The iron exposure to the intestinal cells can, however, pose a risk for colon and rectal cancer. In healthy people, the hormone hepcidin also swings into action to prevent too much iron from being absorbed. For some with a genetic condition, these safety measures to prevent iron absorption do not happen. Iron overload (technically called Hemochromatosis) then occurs with symptoms of fatigue, abdominal pain, depression, and eventual liver failure, diabetes, and bone damage if left untreated.
For those healthy people that can defend against too much iron, even they can experience the downside of too much iron. Excessive iron is constipating. That constipation can prevent food from moving through the digestive tract efficiently. Food moving through the digestive tract too slowly poses a risk of increased exposure to food borne pathogens and toxins that are present in our foods. As those not so nice things in our food supply linger too long in our gut, we can get sick. It’s so much better for our food to move nicely through our digestive tract rather than taking days to move along!
Gender and age determine iron requirements
- Adult males aged 19 to >70 need only 8 mg/day
- Adult females aged 19 to 50 need 18 mg/day
- Once an adult women reaches 51 years of age and older, requirements decrease to 8 mg/day
- Children aged 1-3 need only 7 mg/day
- Children aged 4-8 need 10 mg/day
- Growing adolescent males aged 9-13 need only 8 mg/day
- Growing adolescent males aged 14-18 need 11 mg/day
- Females aged 9-13 need only 8 mg/day
- Females aged 14-18 need 15 mg/day to accommodate growth and menstruation
Avoiding cereal with too much iron
Cereals with too much iron can be avoided by first checking the Nutrition Fact Label. If you walk down the cereal aisle and start looking at the Nutrition Fact Label on cereal boxes, you will see that some of the most popular cereals are often packed with 50 to nearly 100% of “the requirement”. Remember, iron requirements vary by gender and age. So, the Nutrition Fact Label must select only the iron requirement of the part of the population needing the most iron. Therefore, all the iron percentages on the label are based off the 18 mg recommended for 19-50 year old females as their requirements are the highest!
So, what about a man or older woman who chooses to eat multiple servings of a these cereals in a given day? They would be ingesting much more iron than they need, potentially placing themselves at medical risk over the long run. The solution to this dietary dilemma is to simply know your requirements and choose the cereal that matches your needs. The Nutrition Fact Label reading can get complicated, so I’ve gone ahead and looked up popular cereals and done the calculation to note the iron content per serving so it is easier to review what can work best into your own diet.
Updated iron content of popular cereals
Cereals with less than 3 mg of iron per serving
- Puffins have < 1mg
- Kind Healthy Grains (all varieties) have <1 mg
- Erewhon Brown Rice Cereal has <1 mg
- Cascadian Farm Cereal Berry Vanilla Puffs Organic have <1 mg
- Nature’s Path EnviroKidz Panda Puffs Cereal Peanut Butter Organic has <1 mg
- Nature’s Path Sunrise Cereal Crunchy Vanilla Gluten Free Organic has <1 mg
- Raisin Bran Crunch has 1 mg
- Shredded Wheat has 2 mg
- Kashi Whole Wheat Cereal Berry Fruitful has 2 mg
- Nature’s Path Heritage Flakes have 2 mg
- Kashi Golean has 2 mg
- Nature’s Path Flax Plus has 2 mg
Cereals with 5-9 mg of iron per serving
- Cracklin Oat Bran has 5 mg
- Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal has 5 mg
- Fiber One has 5 mg
- Frosted Flakes have 5 mg
- Golden Grahams have 5 mg
- Honey Nut Cheerios have 5 mg
- Life Cereal has 7 mg
- Cornflakes have 8 mg
- Smart Start has 8 mg
- Regular Cheerios have 8 mg
- Kix has 8 mg
- Wheaties has 8 mg
- Great Grains Cereal Raisins, Dates, & Pecans have 9 mg
Cereals with more than 10 mg per serving
- Corn Chex has 11 mg
- Special K has 11 mg
- Rice Krispies have 11mg
- Cheerios Oat Crunch has 14 mg
- Grape Nuts have 16 mg
- Frosted Mini Wheats have 16 mg
- Quaker Oatmeal Squares Cereal with Hint of Brown Sugar have 16 mg
- Total Cereal has 18 mg
Serving sizes and cereal with too much iron
It’s important to take note that the serving sizes of most cereals are only 1/2 to one cup. If someone eats, say double, the above iron numbers double as well. Another little known fact is that if iron rich foods are eaten with a source of vitamin C, the absorption rate of the iron is tripled! Think orange juice with breakfast cereal. And, note that all fruit has vitamin C, so eating berries or melon with your cereal will also triple the iron absorption. This is great for those that have iron deficiencies, but not so great for those that need less iron. And remember, other popular foods are also either fortified with iron or are natural sources of iron. Pasta, bread, lentils, dried fruits, beef, and fish all contain iron. And, the more calories consumed, the greater the dietary iron consumed.
Key points on cereal with too much iron
Know your individual iron requirements. If you are male or an older female, you need much less iron than a younger woman. If you like large amounts of cereal (like me), then make sure you are eating within your recommended limits by picking a lower iron cereal. Cereal is really a healthy breakfast (and can be a creative good dinner, if I’m honest). It can be a great source of fiber and B vitamins, but also a source of too much iron for many except the anemic. Besides the iron content of a cereal, fiber and sugar content should be evaluated when you buy cereal.
Do you have any favorite low iron cereals you enjoy? If you found this blog post helpful, please share comments and the post itself!