Why is iron important for body? What is heme iron?« Back to Questions List

Iron is one important mineral that is necessary for the proper functioning of our body. Iron has two main forms – heme and non heme iron. Iron is an essential component of blood and is necessary for the growth development, normal functioning of cells and making of hormones, connective tissues etc. Iron in hemoglobin is what helps blood carry oxygen to the tissues. Iron is also a component of myoglobin that stores oxygen in muscle tissues.

heme iron, blood

Without enough iron, people suffer from anemia and are more susceptible to colds and various other infections. At the same time, excess iron can harm every organ in the body. Hence intake of iron supplements should be strictly under guidance of a medical practitioner.

Plant foods are different from animal foods when their iron contents are compared. Iron has two main forms – heme and non heme iron. In animal foods, iron is often attached to proteins called heme proteins and hence referred to as heme iron. In plant foods, iron is not attached to heme proteins and is classified as non-heme iron. Heme iron makes about 40% of iron in meat, poultry, fish and is well absorbed.Beef, chicken lever, clams, oysters, ham and veal are good sources of heme iron.  Non heme iron makes up 60% iron found in animal tissue, plants, fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts are less well absorbed. Cereals, beans, pumpkins, aprocots, potato and broccoli are good sources of non-heme iron.
Researchers have found that consuming too much heme iron can cause inflammation and increase heart disease risk. It is absorbed at a rate of 35% while non heme iron found in plants is absorbed at a much low rate (5%).    For iron deficient persons, natural non heme forms of iron are considered much safer.



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