Why Is Iron Added to Cereal?

Iron deficiency, a lack of iron in the body, is common in the very young, the very old and pregnant and menstruating women. Iron carries oxygen in red blood cells; low iron levels cause iron-deficiency anemia. Fortifying cereals, a common breakfast food and one usually accepted by children, with iron helps ensure the daily iron requirements are met. Manufacturers first began fortifying cereals in 1941 to restore cereal to its full whole-grain potential.


The daily iron requirement for children age 4 to 8 is 10mg per day; teen boys require 8mg and teen girls 15mg. Adult men need 8mg, compared to adult women who need 18mg, because they lose iron in menstrual blood each month. Pregnant or breastfeeding moms need to up their intake to 27mg per day. Adults over age 50 need 10mg. Fortified cereals contain between 25 and 100 percent of recommended daily values, which are based on people with the highest iron requirements.


Iron overdose, as well as deficiency, can cause a number of health problems. Fortified cereals, because they aim to supply the needs of the people most at risk for iron deficiency, can lead to an iron overdose for others. A study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration examined the actual amounts of iron in fortified cereals. Results, which were published in the June 2001 issue of “Journal of the American College of Nutrition,” found that of 29 fortified cereal studied, 21 contained 120 percent or more of the stated iron amounts and eight contained 150 percent of the dose listed. The range of actual iron was from 80 to 190 percent of the listed value. In addition, the study also found that most adults consumed twice as much cereal as was listed as an average serving, meaning that they got twice as much iron as was listed in a single serving.


Many children get about half their daily iron requirement from fortified cereals, pediatrician and author William Sears, M.D. reports. Iron-deficiency anemia decreased in American middle-class children from 6.2 percent between 1969 and1973 to 2.7 percent by 1986, the 2001 FDA article reported, quite possibly due to the prevalence of iron-fortified cereals. Similar results were found for children from low-income families.


The iron in cereal is nonheme iron, which is less well absorbed than iron that comes from animal sources. To increase iron absorption from cereal, eat foods or juice high in vitamin C at the same time as fortified cereals, because vitamin C aids iron absorption. Eating a heme source of iron at the same time also increases nonheme iron absorption.