Red meat and minerals
Last updated: October 2015
Red meat contains many essential minerals. These include iron, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium. It also contains a number of so called trace elements that are required in much smaller amounts but are nevertheless essential for the body to function properly. These include zinc, cobalt, copper and selenium.
Iron is needed to carry oxygen in the blood and for many other important functions within the body. Iron in the diet exists in two forms, haem and non-haem iron. Most of the iron found in red meat is in the haem form which is more readily absorbed than non-haem iron. Non-haem iron is found in foods from plant origin such as green leafy vegetable and pulses.
Some forms of dietary fibre in cereals can reduce absorption of non-haem iron. Vitamin C found in fruit and vegetables can enhance iron absorption. Haem iron in red meat also helps to improve the absorption of non-haem iron from plant sources.
Low iron intakes are common around the world and in the UK. Average iron intake in many women aged 19-64 years is below the recommended intake (1) . Among girls aged 11-18 years average iron intake is even lower with over 40% having intakes below recommended levels. Overall, more than a fifth of women (21%) aged 19-64 years and more than a quarter (27%) of girls aged 11-18 years have seriously low iron intakes below which put them at risk of deficiency and impairing their health (2). Red meat consumption has a beneficial effect on iron intake (3) (4).
Zinc helps with the healing of wounds and is also needed for the growth of body cells, fertility and to support the immune system. Red meat is an excellent source of zinc and the zinc in meat is well absorbed. In the UK, 31-34% of zinc is derived from red meat . Any further reductions of meat in the diet to below current average levels could result in poor zinc intakes and impair health.
As with dietary iron, a number of factors in the diet influence the amount of zinc absorbed. A small amount of lean beef (75 g per day) improves both zinc and iron absorption whereas some forms of dietary fibre in cereals inhibits both zinc and iron absorption.
Red meat also contains useful amounts of magnesium, copper, cobalt, phosphorus chromium, nickel and selenium. All of which are needed for healthy body functions.
For example, selenium acts as an antioxidant whereas magnesium is needed for the functioning of a healthy nervous system. Although some minerals are only needed in very small quantities they are still vitally important to the maintenance of health.
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(1) Henderson L et al. National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Adults aged 19 to 64 years. Volume 3. The Stationery Office, 2003.
(2) Bates B et al. National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Headline results from year 1 of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009). A survey carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health. Available:http://www.food.gov.uk/science/dietarysurveys/ndnsdocuments/ndns0809year1
(3)Williamson CS et al. Nutrition Bulletin 2005;30:323-355
(4) Gibson S & Ashwell M. Public Health Nutrition, 2002; 6(4):341-350.