My top 10 plant-based sources of iron and vitamin C

I’ve been playing with the thought lately of creating a “not steak” recipe. Something can be served with roasted veggies and a yummy gravy and fill you up. Then I began wondering about one of the things most people think about when they think about meat: Iron! So I began asking the question: Would it be possible to create a “not steak” out of plant-based foods that could contain some decent plant-based sources of iron too? You may or may not be aware that the iron from plants is absorbed a little differently in the body than the iron that is found in red meats.

Basically, the iron in red meat is highly absorbed and is absorbed whether you need it or not. This is not always a good thing because there are some people who have the problem of “too much iron”, and also there is evidence which suggests that the increase in bowel cancer associated with red meat intake could be due to the heme iron (the type of iron in meat) facilitating the formation of carcinogenic compounds (Saunders et al., 2012).

Plant-based iron (non-heme) on the other hand doesn’t bring with it the same link with colo-rectal cancer. Furthermore, your body is able to regulate it’s uptake of non-heme iron (eg. if you are low your body takes up more and if you are high it takes up less). However, it is a harder to absorb than the heme iron.

So how to make the most of the plant-based iron in your diet? You might have heard that you can increase your non-heme iron absorption by consuming vitamin C at the same time but did you know that you can double the absorption by consuming 25mg of vitamin C at the same meal (this could be in the form of a supplement or food)? and increase it by 3 to 6 times by consuming 50mg of vitamin C during the same meal (Davis and Melina, 2010).

So I’d need to pair my “not steak” ingredients with some high vitamin C foods in the same meal. Since the few vitamin C foods that came to mind all either give me eczema or sore joints, I decided to do some research and put together a list of the Top 10 plant-based and non-enriched sources of iron and vitamin C (because most of the lists I’ve found always contain enriched foods and I’ve often wondered about the other foods in the diet too). So I hit the books and collated a list of foods that should be available at most supermarkets (and therefore accessible to most people) with a few interesting exceptions (like guava – just for your interest as a reference point – (I’ve never seen actual fresh guava in my local supermarket).

Top 10 iron and c foods blog

To put this in context, I’ve also included a summary list of the recommended dietary intakes (the average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals of a particular gender and life stage based on the NHMRC nutrient reference values, 2006).

RDI iron blog

After looking at the table above, you may have noticed some interesting things:

  • males and females have a different RDI between the ages 14-50
  • what on earth is that 180% RDI column?
  • the upper limit for pregnancy is 45mg yet, if following the 180% column the required amount would be 48mg….

What is that all about?

Well, we’ll chat about that more next newsletter as well as discussing something else that is important when it comes to non-heme (plant-based) iron:¬† enhancers and inhibitors of iron absorption.


  • Alpers, DH., Stenson, WF., Taylor, BE. and Bier, DM.(2008) Manual of Nutritional Therapeutics (5th Edition). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, USA.
  • Davis,B., Melina, V. and Berry, R. (2010)Becoming Raw. The essential guide to raw vegan diets. Book Publishing Company, USA.
  • National Health & Medical Research Council (2006) Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand Including Recommended Dietary Intakes (Chapter: Iron, page 188-189).
  • Norris, J. and Messina, V. (2011) Vegan for life. Everything you need to know to be healthy and fit on a plant-based diet. Da Capo Press, USA.
  • Saunders, AV., Craig, WV., Baines, SK. and Posen, JS. (2012) Iron and vegetarian diets. MJA 1 Supp 2:11-16.
  • Stanton, R. (2012) A plant-based diet – good for us and for the planet. Feeding and greening the world requires a fresh look at plant foods (editorial). MJA 1 Supp 2:5-6.

Please note: If you think you might have issues with iron, please get this checked out as this article is intended for your information and is not intended as a substitute for advice from your doctor or healthcare professional.