Eye on Nutrition: Iron and Vitamin C

Food Packages Health and Wellness

Make Every Bite Count

WIC food packages and nutrition education are the chief means by which WIC affects the dietary quality and habits of participants. Did you know that these two benefits are among the top reasons for continued participation in WIC (in addition to the work of WIC personnel!), and that consistent 4-year participation in WIC was associated with better diet quality?

Eye on Nutrition brings focus to the foods and nutrients in the WIC food packages to shine a light on their importance to WIC participants. This EON features iron and vitamin C - critical nutrients for growth and development, a healthy immune system, and potentially protecting against lead exposure.

Be sure to check out iron-rich recipes members of the WIC community have shared with us, as well as sample meals to protect against lead exposure.

What is Iron?
Why is Iron Important?
What is Vitamin C and Why is it Important?
How Much Iron and Vitamin C are Needed?
What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Iron and Vitamin C?
Preserving Vitamin C Content
Combating Lead Exposure with Nutrition
Are Iron and Vitamin C on the Nutrition Facts Label?
Education Resources


What is Iron?

Iron is an essential mineral needed for growth, brain development, and production of various hormones and proteins, such as:

  • Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the blood to the lungs and rest of the body; and
  • Myoglobin, which transports oxygen to muscles.

When levels of iron stored in the body become low, iron deficiency anemia sets in. Red blood cells become smaller and contain less hemoglobin. As a result, blood carries less oxygen from the lungs throughout the body.
 

Heme vs. Non-heme Iron

There are two dietary forms of iron (heme – derived from hemoglobin -  and non-heme), each come from different sources.

 

Heme Iron

Non-heme Iron

Sources

Animal products, like:

  • red meat
  • fish 
  • poultry 
  • eggs

Plant sources like:

  • leafy green vegetables
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • iron-fortified foods

Absorption

Body readily absorbs

Body absorbs better when eaten with heme iron sources or foods with vitamin C.

 

Why is Iron Important?

Iron is important during each life stage (and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans identify it as a nutrient of public health concern), but especially during pregnancy, infancy and childhood –critical times of growth and development.

Iron is a key nutrient during pregnancy that supports fetal development. Iron needs increase during pregnancy increase compared to pre-pregnancy. 

*Most healthcare providers recommend women who are pregnant take a daily prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement in addition to consuming a healthy dietary pattern. Women should talk with their provider about their needs.*

Getting too little iron during pregnancy increases a woman’s risk of iron deficiency anemia and her infant’s risk of low birthweight, premature birth, and low iron levels. Getting too little iron might also harm her infant’s brain development.

Iron deficiency anemia in infancy can lead to delayed psychological development, social withdrawal, and less ability to pay attention.

Infants born preterm or with low birthweight, or whose mothers have iron deficiency, are at risk of iron deficiency because of their high iron requirements due to their rapid growth.

Getting adequate amounts of iron is thought to help protect against lead exposure.
 

What is Vitamin C and Why is it Important?

Vitamin C is an essential water-soluble vitamin that enhances our body’s ability to absorb iron (particularly when consumed at the same time as iron-rich foods). Among other functions, it also makes collagen to help wounds heal and acts as an antioxidant, which protects our cells from the damage of free radicals made when your body breaks down food or when you are exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation. (Vitamin C does not appear to prevent a cold.)

As with iron, getting adequate amounts of vitamin C is thought to help protect against lead exposure.
 

How Much Iron and Vitamin C are Needed?

Life stage plays significant a role in how much iron and vitamin C a person needs each day. In addition, an infant’s iron needs depends on how much breast milk and/or formula she or he consumes. Babies fed only breast milk, only formula, or a mix of breast milk and formula have different needs when it comes to iron. Parents should talk to their infant’s healthcare provider about whether their infant is getting enough iron.

Those who smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk for vitamin C inadequacy. While there's not a specific vitamin C requirement for nonsmokers who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, these individuals should ensure that they meet the RDA for vitamin C.

What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Iron and Vitamin C?

Iron

Heme

  • Eggs
  • Canned fish
  • Infant meats

Non-heme

  • Legumes (beans, peas and lentils)
  • Peanut butter
  • Fortified breakfast cereals, including infant cereals
  • Whole grains (e.g., whole wheat bread and pasta, oats, etc.)
  • Dark leafy green vegetables
  • Tofu

Vitamin C

  • Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruits
  • Other fruits, like kiwi, papaya, cantaloupe, strawberries and raspberries
  • 100% fruit and vegetable juice
  • Vegetables, like broccoli, bell peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes (see Preserving Vitamin C Content)
  • Infant fruits and vegetables

A study* of children participating in WIC found that at age 3, 100% of study children met or exceeded the recommended amounts of iron in their daily diets.

*WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study-2, third-year report
 

Preserving Vitamin C Content

*How food is cooked can either enhance or destroy flavor – and can affect nutrient content. Vitamin C is heat sensitive, so it easily degrades during cooking. Steaming and microwaving retains higher concentrations of vitamin C than boiling because of the reduced contact with water at relatively low temperatures. Using minimal cooking water and cooking for shorter times should result in higher vitamin C retention.


Combating Lead Exposure with Nutrition

Although widespread lead exposure has decreased significantly in the last few decades, it’s still something to educate participants about, particularly given harmful effects of lead exposure such as slow growth, fatigue, developmental delay, and learning difficulties.  Young kids are often putting items (like toys, dirt, etc.) into their mouths, so they are at higher risk to lead exposure.

Did you know?

  • If exposed, young kids will absorb higher amounts of lead than adults.
  • Lead is absorbed faster on an empty stomach.
  • Eating foods high in key nutrients can limit the amount of lead the body absorbs!

Key nutrients like iron, vitamin C, and calcium should be regularly included as they can help prevent lead poisoning in children and adults. When these nutrients are sufficient in the body, it will be harder for lead to be absorbed.


Are Iron and Vitamin C on the Nutrition Facts Label?

Iron has been a part of the Nutrition Facts Label since the standardized label first began appearing on food packages in 1994. Iron, listed on the label in milligrams (mg) and % Daily Value, is considered a “nutrient to get more of”, along with calcium, vitamin D and potassium!

Vitamin C is no longer required to be on the Nutrition Facts Label, though manufacturers can include it voluntarily.


Education Resources

In addition to using the interactive Nutrition Facts Label, WIC staff can provide recipes and sample meals to help participants make the most of WIC foods that provide these nutrients.

WIC staff can also use resources, such NIH consumer pages for iron and vitamin C, as well as Well Fed Means Less Lead and Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet (available in English and Spanish) to educate participants about the importance of getting adequate amounts of iron and vitamin C.  

Providing kid-friendly ways and general tips to eat more foods high in these nutrients can also help participants thrive.