Your Body Might Not Absorb Iron Well From Plant-Based Meat

meat substitute and plant-based burger

Verywell / Amelia Manley

Key Takeaways

  • Iron and zinc from plant-based meat alternatives might not be well absorbed by the body.
  • A new study suggests that the high amount of phytate in these meat alternatives inhibits iron absorption.
  • Eating vitamin C-rich foods along with iron sources can increase iron absorption.

Plant-based meat might not offer as much iron and zinc as the nutrition labels suggest, according to a new study. Researchers in Sweden said that the amount of phytate, a type of “antinutrient,” in meat substitutes might prevent the body from absorbing certain essential minerals.

While meat substitutes can help people transition to a vegetarian diet, they’re likely not a staple in a plant-based diet.

“As a long-time vegetarian, fake meat fills a social void more than a nutritional one,” Emily Boltcreed, 28, a student in Jersey City who has been following a vegetarian diet for 14 years, told Verywell.

Vegetarian and vegan diets lack heme iron, a form of iron that’s only found in animals and is easier for the body to absorb. However, health authorities say it’s possible for vegetarians to get all of the nutrients they need, including iron.

“The benefits of going more plant-based probably outweigh the risk of creating a problem with that one mineral,” said Debbie Petitpain, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in Charleston, South Carolina, with expertise in vegan and vegetarian nutrition.

How to Help Your Body Absorb Iron Better

The study authors said in a press release that they hope the plant-based meat industry will find new ways to increase the absorption of iron, zinc, and other nutrients. Many of the meat substitutes researched in the study contain high levels of phytates, which can bind to iron and prevent it from being absorbed by the body.

But phytates aren’t the only compound that can inhibit iron absorption. Calcium in milk and tannins in tea and coffee can also reduce the bioavailability of iron. Anyone who is concerned about their iron intake should avoid consuming tea, coffee, or milk with their meals, according to Petitpain.

Vitamin C is also known to enhance iron absorption. Adding citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, and other vitamin C-rich ingredients to a meal with plant-based meat can help the body better absorb the nutrient, according to Stephan van Vliet, PhD, a nutrition scientist at Utah State University.

How to Interpret Iron Content on Nutrition Labels

Impossible Foods, a popular meat substitute brand, claims that its burgers are an “excellent source of iron” and the nutrition facts state that each 4-ounce serving contains 4.2 milligrams of iron or 25% of the recommended daily value.

In comparison, a standard 4-oz 80/20 ground beef contains only 1.8 mg of iron or 10% of the daily value.

Impossible Foods developed a plant-derived heme protein that's supposed to make the iron in its plant-based meats more absorbable. But there's not enough research on how iron absorption works in these meat alternatives. Even the new study from Sweden didn't provide a definitive answer, van Vliet said, since it only evaluated the ratio of phytate to iron in the tested products.

Petitpain said she doesn’t tend to encourage people to look at the iron content on a nutrition label unless they need to watch their iron intake.

“It doesn’t really matter what the number is on the label—it depends on how much of it is getting into your blood," she said.

What This Means For You

The amount of iron absorbed from your food depends on a variety of factors, including the antinutrients and enhancers that are consumed along with your meal. Cooking in a cast iron skillet and adding vitamin C-rich ingredients can enhance iron absorption.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mayer Labba IC, Steinhausen H, Almius L, Bach Knudsen KE, Sandberg AS. Nutritional composition and estimated iron and zinc bioavailability of meat substitutes available on the Swedish marketNutrients. 2022;14(19):3903. doi:10.3390/nu14193903

  2. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: vegetarian dietsJ Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025