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Eye on Nutrition: Zinc

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. Given the critical role zinc plays during infancy, including its importance during introducing complementary foods to older infants, zinc is the star of this Eye on Nutrition.

Be sure to check out zinc-rich recipes WIC staff have shared with us.

What is Zinc?
Why is Zinc Important?
What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Zinc?
Is Zinc on the Nutrition Facts Label?
Education Resources

What is Zinc?

Zinc is an essential mineral needed for normal growth and development, especially during pregnancy, lactation, and infancy. It’s found in cells throughout the body and plays an important role in the immune system. Some of its other functions include wound healing, making proteins, cell division and cell growth. Zinc is even required for taste and smell! 

Why is Zinc Important?

Everyone needs zinc but it’s especially important for some WIC participants. 

Pregnant and breastfeeding women need to get enough zinc to meet their own needs as well as their baby’s. If a mother doesn’t consume enough zinc, the baby’s needs take priority, which may lead to a zinc deficiency in the mother. 

Zinc’s wound healing properties may also help postpartum mothers in the healing process after birth!

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans note that exclusive breastfeeding provides the infant with adequate zinc only until about 6 months of age – about the time when complimentary feeding begins. 

At about 6 months old, encourage caregivers of infant participants to:

  • Include nutrient dense complementary foods that provide zinc to ensure they are getting enough each day. 
  • Vary the types of foods older infants are offered, keeping in mind the appropriate food texture for their age and developmental ability.
  • Continue to provide breastmilk/breastfeed

The recommended intake of zinc depends on age and life stage (and during adulthood, gender, too!). Pregnant and breastfeeding women require the most dietary zinc per day. Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet during these life stages may need to take special care to ensure nutrient adequacy of zinc as well as other nutrients (e.g., iron may be of particular concern because plant source foods only contain non-heme iron, which is less bioavailable than heme iron). Other nutrients of potential concern include vitamin B12choline, and iodine. 

Be sure to encourage participants to speak with their medical provider about taking any supplemental zinc!

What WIC-Eligible Foods Provide Zinc?

  • Fortified* infant cereals
  • Infant meats
  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Fortified* breakfast cereals
  • Some whole grains, like oats
  • Milk and milk substitutes
    • Cow milk
    • Yogurt
    • Cheese
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned fish

Zinc from animal foods is more readily absorbed by the body. Foods beyond those in the WIC food packages that have zinc include oysters, red meat, poultry, pork, seafood and other shellfish, pumpkin seeds, and some nuts. 

* "Fortified" with zinc means the nutrient is added because it is not naturally found in the food item. If zinc-fortified, some infant cereals can be a good introduction food for older infants. Some fortified breakfast cereals may also be a source of zinc and may be of particular interest to participants following a vegan or vegetarian eating plan. 

Is Zinc on the Nutrition Facts Label?

It is voluntary for manufacturers to list zinc on the Nutrition Facts label. If it's on the label, it’ll be listed in milligrams (mg) and % Daily Value (% DV).

The % DV (how much a nutrient in a single serving of an individual packaged food or dietary supplement contributes to your daily diet) can be helpful to make comparisons between products (as long as serving sizes are the same) and informed choices.

Read more about the Daily Value:

Daily Value and % Daily Value

The Lows and Highs of Percent Daily Value on the new Nutrition Facts Label

Education Resources

WIC Staff can find more information on feeding older infants in the USDA WIC Infant Nutrition and Feeding Guide for WIC.

The Nutrition Facts label fact sheets for vitamins and minerals provide action steps for consuming a diet rich in vitamins and minerals (including zinc), and charts that identify food sources of each vitamin and mineral. 

MyPlate offers protein foods, including beans, peas, and lentils, and dairy nutrition education resources, including galleries for each of these food groups, as well as interactive resources for participants to:

  • Get a personalized MyPlate Plan (Plan MiPlato) that takes pregnancy and breastfeeding status into account.
  • Take the MyPlate Quiz to see how their eating habits stack up against recommendations and get tailored resources and a personal quiz results code to sync with the Start Simple with MyPlate app.
  • Set simple goals based on their personal needs with the Start Simple with MyPlate app. Sync results from the MyPlate Quiz for a personalized experience. Join challenges, see progress, and earn badges to celebrate successes.
  • Shop (and save money!) with the Shop Simple with MyPlate web app to quickly find savings in the local area and discover new ways to prepare low-cost foods. Just enter the zip code to find cost-saving opportunities in the local area, including physical and online SNAP retailers and Farmer’s Markets. This app can be access via a smartphone and desktop/laptop.
  • Test their Food Group IQ with fun quizzes.
  • Hear healthy eating solutions from families via videos, and download Food Planning During the Coronavirus Pandemic (in English and Spanish).
  • Find activity sheets for kids, including bingo, coloring sheets and a food critic activity to help kids try new fruits, vegetables, or a new recipe.
  • Get MyPlate nutrition tips for your baby or toddler on Amazon Alexa devices or the free Alexa app.

An updated toolkit for health professionals with consumer-friendly fact sheets based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is available online. Visit the toolkit for resources such as Build a Healthy Eating Routine and Cut Down on Added Sugars

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