Iron is an important mineral for everyone – infants, toddlers, teenagers and adults especially women of reproductive age. This is because it has the important functions of carrying oxygen through the body and makes red blood cells.
There are two types of iron found in our foods:
Heme iron – only found in animal food sources and is more readily available for the body to use.
Non-heme iron – found in both plants and animals and is not as bio-available for use by the body like the heme iron.
Non-heme iron can be made more available to the body by consuming vitamin C -rich foods like bananas, oranges, tomatoes, apples etc. along with legumes, proper processing of grains and legumes (to remove antinutrients like phytate that bind up iron and other minerals) as well as lysine rich foods along with your foods that contain non-heme iron.
For infants under 6 months, the breast milk contains enough bio- available iron to meet their iron needs. However if a breastfed infant under 6 months is given solids too early, the iron levels might be hindered.
After 6 months, the iron stores begin to deplete and foods rich in iron sources become very important.
Iron is the most common single nutrient deficiency in the world. When there is a deficiency, there is adverse effect on the cognitive and behavioral development.
On the other hand, too much of iron can also be toxic. The recommended iron take for infants 6 – 12 months is 11mg/day and toddlers is 7mg/day.
Some of the iron rich foods that can be found in Nigeria and that are great for infants and toddlers include:
- Organ meat
Organ meats like liver, gizzard, heart and kidney are high in iron. Chicken, turkey and cow organs will give a range of 3-10mg of iron per 100g depending on the animal organs selected. Turkey liver has more iron than chicken and cow liver.
Shrimps commonly called crayfish is a good source of iron. A tablespoon (or about 7g) of dried shrimps will give about 2mg of iron.
3. Red meat
Beef is also a good source of iron. Infants and toddlers can be fed with minced beef or have beef blended into their meals (in case of smaller infants) to meet their iron needs.
Cowpea and soybeans are some of the common legumes given to infants and toddlers. One of the challenges with grains is the antinutrients they contain that can bind iron and make it unavailable for the body to use. This is the reason why grains are usually soaked, dehulled, fermented and even sprouted just to make nutrients more available for the body. So, processing is very important for grains.
Boiled Soybeans will give about 2.9mg/100g (an infant cannot eat up to 100g of soybeans at one sitting so addition of soybeans to the diet will be just the portion of the iron stated, this is the same for every value given per 100g).
The typical beans porridge will give about 0.7mg of iron (in 100g of beans porridge) while the regular Moinmoin will give about 0.6-0.8mg of iron in 100g.
The white beans made into Moinmoin and called Ekuru Ewa funfun will give about 8.38mg in 100g, the red variety of Ekuru will give 10.38mg of iron in 100g.
Consuming these legumes with foods high in vitamin C can make the iron more available for the body.
5. Leafy vegetables
Leafy vegetables are a great source of iron for infants, toddlers and the whole family. Some leafy vegetables can give about 1.7mg of iron in 100g or more. Baobab leaves commonly eaten by the Hausa people have great iron content. 100g of dried baobab will give about 15.4mg of Iron. Other examples of leafy vegetables are Fluted pumpkin (Ugu), Spinach.
6. Nuts and seeds
Groundnuts and cashew nuts are the most common nuts in Nigeria. 100g of dried groundnuts will give about 2.9mg of iron. For roasted groundnut, iron content is lower than the dried. Roasted cashew though will give you about 6mg of Iron in 100g (You could use as much as 30g of nuts in a recipe but take care to balance out protein for the day so it’s not too much).
7. Thyme (dried)
Dried Thyme is a herb used in adding flavour to our foods. It has a good iron content and therefore a nice addition to foods. In one teaspoon of dried thyme, you would find about 1.2mg of iron.
- African Locust Beans (Iru, dawadawa)
The fermented iru contains about 4.87mg of iron in 100g. Like thyme, Iru is used as a condiment and as such just a little quantity is used but nevertheless it would add some iron and other nutrients to children’s meals.
Oats is imported into Nigeria. For those who can afford to buy it, it is a great source of Iron, giving about 3.4mg in one cup of cooked oats. It is also a good source of other nutrients like plant protein, fibre, and minerals like magnesium and zinc.
Infants and toddlers really need their iron. If your baby or toddler, is slow to gain weight, does not have appetite, is not very active and is highly irritable, it could be that an iron deficiency has occurred. Take the time out to visit your nutritionist or dietician and present your observations so that they can guide you. Also if you read this and you feel that your child is not eating up to about 7-11mg of iron per day depending on age, then you can make sure you take the time to provide foods that are iron rich and have readily available iron for their bodies.