Iron is an essential micronutrient that plays a crucial role in the production of blood, oxygen transportation, and growth and development.
The daily reference intake for iron is 18 mg for adults (1).
Unfortunately, this mineral is also one of the world’s most common nutrient deficiencies.
For example, the National Health and Nutrition Examinations Survey (NHANES) found that the rate of iron-deficiency anemia almost doubled in the United States between 2003 and 2012 (2).
This article takes a look at the 20 best foods high in iron from both animal-based and plant-based sources.
All nutrition data comes from the USDA Food Composition Databases.
Animal Foods High In Iron
First of all, there is a difference in the absorption rate of heme-iron (animal foods) and non-heme iron (plant foods).
Research suggests that heme iron has 14-18% bioavailability depending on the individual, whereas this falls to 5-12% for non-heme iron (3).
In other words; heme iron is the most bioavailable option, and animal foods are a more reliable source of iron than their plant-based equivalents.
1) Duck Liver
Duck liver is a rich source of iron, and one small liver offers 75% of the RDI (4).
However, all liver is an excellent source of this iron, and chicken, beef, and pork liver are also good options.
Duck liver is also a very nutritious food, and it provides large amounts of several key nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin B12, folate, and copper.
|Duck Liver||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||30.53 mg||170 %|
|Per liver||13.43 mg||75 %|
Liverwurst is a traditional German meat spread made from liver, other organ meats, meat, fat, and spices.
Due to its high liver content, it is also an excellent source of iron, and it provides 27% of the RDI for iron per cup (5).
Liverwurst is highly nutritious, and it also provides good concentrations of vitamin A, vitamin B12, and selenium.
|Liverwurst||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||8.85 mg||49 %|
|Per cup (55 g)||4.87 mg||27 %|
3) Lamb Kidney
All organ meats tend to be nutrient-dense, and kidney is no exception.
Whether beef, chicken, lamb or pork, all kidney is an excellent source of iron.
However, lamb kidney offers the most, and a four-ounce serving provides 41% of the RDI for the mineral (6).
This organ meat is also an excellent way to increase our intake of B vitamins and selenium.
|Lamb Kidney||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||6.60 mg||37 %|
|Per 4 oz (113 g)||7.46 mg||41 %|
Cuttlefish are a type of marine mollusk that belongs to the same family as octopus and squid.
These marine creatures are also high in iron, and a typical three-ounce serving offers 28% of the RDI for the mineral (7).
Additionally, cuttlefish are rich in protein, selenium, and various B vitamins.
|Cuttlefish||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||6.02 mg||33 %|
|Per 3 oz (85 g)||5.12 mg||28 %|
5) Chicken Heart
Chicken hearts are very small, but they are also reasonably nutrient-dense.
Per chicken heart, we can get around 2% of the RDI for iron (8).
Similar to other organ meats, chicken hearts are also a good source of vitamin B12 and protein.
|Chicken Breast||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.96 mg||33 %|
|Per heart (6.1 g)||0.36 mg||2 %|
6) Goose Breast
Goose breast is a strong and flavorful dark meat that shares more in common with red meat than chicken.
Iron is one of the key nutrients that goose breast provides, and a six-ounce serving offers 56% of the RDI for the mineral (9).
Goose breast is also high in protein and vitamin B12.
|Goose Breast||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.91 mg||33 %|
|Per 6 oz (170 g)||10.04 mg||56 %|
Oysters are one of the world’s most nutrient-dense foods, and they offer a lot of nutritional value.
For example, they provide substantial amounts of B vitamins, copper, zinc, selenium, protein, and even omega-3.
Oysters also offer a good amount of iron and a three-ounce serving supplies around 27% of the RDI (10).
|Oysters||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.78 mg||32 %|
|Per 3 oz (85 g)||4.91 mg||27 %|
8) Lean Beef (Skirt) Steak
Beef is a good source of iron whether it is a fatty cut of meat or a lean cut.
However, lean beef offers the most concentrated amount of the mineral, and a six-ounce steak provides 52% of the RDI (11).
Beef also contains a wide range of beneficial nutrients including protein, selenium, zinc, and B vitamins.
Additionally, beef provides various bioactive compounds that may confer benefits such as carnitine, CLA, and creatine (12).
|Lean Beef||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.46 mg||30 %|
|Per 6 oz (170 g)||9.28 mg||52 %|
Octopus is not a common food in the Western world, but it is certainly a nutritious one.
The nutrient profile is one of the reasons why people around the world value it, and it plays a prevalent role in Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, and Spanish cuisine.
Per three-ounce serving, octopus offers 25% of the RDI for iron (13).
Octopus also provides significant concentrations of vitamin B12, and it is very protein-dense too.
|Octopus||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.30 mg||29 %|
|Per 3 oz (85 g)||4.50 mg||25 %|
10) Whelk (Sea Snail)
While many people are put off by the idea of eating (sea) snails, whelk is also a popular food around the world
These sea snails are particularly popular in East Asian and Mediterranean cuisine, and they offer a lot of nutritional value.
Whelk supplies about 24% of the RDI for iron per three-ounce serving (14).
In addition to this, whelk provides large amounts of protein, vitamin B12, selenium, and copper.
|Whelk||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.03 mg||28 %|
|Per 3 oz (85 g)||4.28 mg||24 %|
Plant Foods High In Iron
As previously mentioned, plant foods offer non-heme iron, which is not as bioavailable as the ‘heme’ form found in animal foods.
That said, some plant foods can still offer large amounts of the mineral.
Here are ten plant foods high in iron.
11) Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder is one of the most nutrient-dense plant foods, and it offers a great source of iron too.
Per ounce serving, cocoa has 22% of the RDI for the mineral (17).
Cocoa also provides substantial servings of copper, magnesium, and manganese.
Additionally, dark chocolate can be a good source of iron too providing the bar has a high percentage of cocoa solids.
In this regard, look for bars over around 80% cocoa for the highest concentrations of the mineral.
|Cocoa||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||13.9 mg||77 %|
|Per oz (28 g)||3.9 mg||22 %|
12) Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms offer one of the most significant plant sources of iron.
Per cup serving, these mushrooms offer 45% of the RDI for the mineral (18).
Unlike most types of mushrooms, morels grow in the wild and do not come from commercial farming operations.
However, be aware that there are several poisonous ‘false morel’ mushrooms in the wild, so only experts should attempt to identify them (19).
|Morel Mushrooms||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||12.18 mg||68 %|
|Per cup (66 g)||8.04 mg||45 %|
Natto is a Japanese fermented dish made by fermenting soybeans with certain strains of bacteria called Bacillus subtilis) (20).
This fermented food is famous for being one of the world’s best sources of vitamin K2.
Regarding natto’s iron content, this traditional Japanese dish supplies 84% of the RDI per cup (21).
Natto is also a rich source of copper, magnesium, and manganese.
|Natto||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||8.60 mg||48 %|
|Per cup (175 g)||15.05 mg||84 %|
14) Hemp Seed (Hulled)
Hemp seeds offer a reasonable serving of iron, and one tablespoon of the seeds comes to 13% of the RDI for the mineral (22).
These seeds have a mild and nutty taste and can be eaten either alone, mixed in with different food, or as part of a smoothie.
Aside from iron, hemp seeds offer substantial amounts of vitamin E, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.
|Hemp Seed||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||7.95 mg||44 %|
|Per tbsp (30 g)||2.38 mg||13 %|
15) Goji Berries
Over the past decade, goji berries became popular worldwide, during which time they have often been dubbed a “superfood.”
While calling any food “super” is somewhat of an exaggeration, goji berries have an interesting nutrition profile for a berry.
For one thing, they are quite high in iron, and they offer 11% of the RDI per tablespoon (23).
Goji berries are also a good source of carotenoids and vitamin C.
|Goji Berries||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||6.80 mg||38 %|
|Per tbsp (28 g)||1.90 mg||11 %|
16) Cashew Nuts
Cashew nuts are a delicious type of tree nut that provides a wide range of nutrients.
Among these nutrients, cashews are an especially good source of iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, phosphorus, and manganese.
Per ounce serving, cashew nuts supply around 11% of the RDI for iron (24).
|Cashew Nuts||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||6.68 mg||37 %|
|Per oz (28 g)||1.89 mg||11 %|
Flaxseeds offer a good amount of protein, fiber, omega-3 in the form of ALA, and various nutrients.
The iron content of flaxseeds is around 3% of the RDI per tablespoon (25).
Although the taste of flaxseed alone is not so enjoyable, the seeds are often used for making low-carb, high-fiber bakery products.
Many people also add flaxseeds to food as a fiber “supplement.”
|Flaxseed||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||5.73 mg||32 %|
|Per tbsp (10.3 g)||0.59 mg||3 %|
Hazelnuts are one of the most popular types of nut in the world, and they taste delicious.
These nuts offer a good amount of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The iron content of hazelnuts is around 7% of the RDI per ounce serving (26).
|Hazelnuts||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||4.70 mg||26 %|
|Per oz (28 g)||1.33 mg||7 %|
Peanuts are one of the most prevalent “nuts” in the world.
However, botanically peanuts are actually a type of legume rather than a nut.
Peanuts have a reasonably good nutrition profile, but raw peanuts are the best option since producers often roast peanuts in poor-quality oils.
Per ounce serving, peanuts offer 7% of the RDI for iron. These nuts are also an excellent source of B vitamins, copper, and manganese (27).
|Peanuts||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||4.58 mg||25 %|
|Per oz (28 g)||1.30 mg||7 %|
Almonds are a nutritious and popular nut, and they are very versatile too.
For example, we can easily grind almonds into almond flour, which works well as a healthier replacement for wheat flour in baking.
Almonds have a good nutrition profile too, and they offer 6% of the RDI for iron per 100 grams (28).
In addition to this, almonds are also an excellent source of vitamin E, magnesium, and manganese.
|Almonds||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Per 100 g||3.71 mg||21 %|
|Per oz (28 g)||1.05 mg||6 %|
As shown in this article, there are numerous food sources of iron.
While heme iron in animal foods is the most bioavailable source of the mineral, plant foods can play a part in meeting iron requirements too.
Organ meat and seafood are particularly good sources for those that like them.
However, there is a wide variety of iron-rich foods, so it shouldn’t be overly complicated to get an adequate supply.
For more on minerals, see this guide to the benefits of potassium.