Iron is one of the most vitally important nutrients in the diet. Not only is it essential for normal growth and development, healthy skin, bones and teeth and optimal immunity, but it also supplies body cells with the oxygen they need to produce energy. While some whole-grains do contain a fair amount of iron, most high-iron breakfast cereals have been enriched with the mineral.
Any breakfast cereal that supplies at least 3.6 milligrams of iron per serving is considered high in iron or an excellent source of the nutrient. This amount is equivalent to 20 percent of the recommended daily value for iron, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets at 18 milligrams based on a 2,000-calorie diet. A nutrient’s daily value is meant to provide a point of comparison between similar foods, and shouldn’t be confused with daily intake recommendations, which generally vary depending on age, gender and other factors.
Virtually all whole-grains contain iron -- for example, plain oatmeal provides about 2 milligrams per cup, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because very few breakfast cereals are naturally high in iron, manufacturers sometimes add it to their products to make them a better source of the nutrient. Enriched cereals may contain anywhere from 3.6 milligrams to more than 18 milligrams of iron per serving, depending on how they’re made. The average 1-cup serving of enriched oatmeal delivers close to 14 milligrams of iron, or nearly 80 percent of the recommended daily value.
The recommended dietary allowance for iron is just 8 milligrams a day for healthy men and postmenopausal women, or those over the age of 50. Women younger than 50 need about 18 milligrams of iron a day to counterbalance the effects of regular menstrual blood loss, while pregnant women need 27 milligrams a day to sustain rapid growth and development. Although breakfast cereal that provides 100 percent of the daily value for iron per serving would meet 100 percent of a young woman’s daily requirement, it supplies more than twice the amount needed by men and older women, and about two-thirds the amount required during pregnancy.
The iron in breakfast cereal, whether it’s naturally occurring or added during processing, is not as readily available as the iron from animal sources. You can significantly boost the amount of iron you’re able to absorb from cereal by consuming it along with a glass of orange juice, some fresh strawberries or any other vitamin C-rich food. Just as vitamin C enhances iron absorption, however, other phytonutrients interfere with it -- drinking coffee or tea with your bowl of cereal will decrease the mineral’s availability.
Before choosing a high-iron breakfast cereal, check its sugar content. Many ready-to-eat cereals are just as high in sugar as they are in iron. According to the USDA, you’ll get about 4.5 milligrams of iron and more than 9 grams of sugar from a serving of honey-nut-flavored O-shaped cereal, whereas a serving of plain O-shaped cereal provides twice as much iron and just over 1 gram of sugar. The American Heart Association suggests that eating too many added sugars can significantly increase your chances of dying from heart disease.
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: Iron
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- American Heart Association: Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying From Heart Disease
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals, Oats, Regular and Quick and Instant, Unenriched, Cooked With Water (Includes Boiling and Microwaving) With Salt
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals, Oats, Instant, Fortified, Plain, Prepared With Water (Boiling Water Added or Microwaved)
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals Ready-to-Eat, General Mills, Cheerios
- USDA National Nutrient Database: Cereals Ready-to-Eat, General Mills, Honey Nut Cheerios
- American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide; Roberta Larson Duyff, M.S., R.D.