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Heme Iron Supplements: The Complete Guide

29th Mar, 2021  |  Claire O'Brien  |  News

If you are considering heme iron supplements, then this guide is for you. Using easy to understand language and terms, we will take you through all you need to know.

We will answer all your questions, including the following:

  • What is heme iron?
  • What are the main dietary sources of heme iron?
  • What are the different types of iron supplements?
  • How much heme iron do I need?
  • What are the best types of iron supplements?

Let’s get started by looking at what heme iron is and why it’s such an important mineral.

What is Heme Iron?

Iron is an essential mineral and plays a vital role in the body. It’s used to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. And it also contributes to normal cognitive function, normal energy metabolism and the normal formation of red blood cells.

There are two different types of iron: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron mainly comes from animal sources. Red meat, offal, poultry and fish are all excellent sources of iron.

Non-heme iron comes from plant-based sources. These include fortified cereals and breads, rice, oats, nuts, beans and leafy greens. And best of all, dark chocolate is also rich in non-heme iron.

Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Therefore, vegetarians have to eat twice as much iron as meat-eaters to get the same amount.

Sources of Heme Iron

As we have seen, the main source of heme iron is meat. This is because meat has lots of blood proteins and haemoglobin, which help the body transport oxygen.

If you want to increase the amount of heme iron in your diet, then here are the best foods to include.

  • Organ meats: Kidneys, liver, brain and heart are incredibly nutritious and score highly for heme iron. Liver, in particular, is one of the most nutrient-dense organ meats and contains plenty of heme iron.
  • Red meat: Often given bad press, red meat is, however, packed full of protein and essential vitamins and minerals, including iron. When it comes to heme iron, all red meats pack a punch. Including lots of steaks, chops and mince in your diet will increase your intake of heme iron.
  • Poultry: Although not as iron-rich as red meat, chicken and turkey are nevertheless good sources of heme iron.
  • Fish and shellfish: Other excellent choices rich in heme iron include fish and shellfish. Canned varieties of fish, especially sardines and tuna, are excellent choices. And clams, oysters and mussels will also deliver a healthy dose of heme iron.

Most people get enough heme iron from their diet. However, others find it difficult to get sufficient iron from food alone. These people may choose to increase their intake with iron supplements.

The Different Types of Iron Supplements

There are several different types of iron supplement available. These include:

  • Ferrous sulfate
  • Ferrous gluconate
  • Ferric citrate
  • Ferric sulfate

Usually available as tablets and capsules, these iron supplements also come as salts or liquids.

However, different types of iron supplements contain varying amounts of elemental iron. Most iron supplements contain non-heme iron.

Heme vs Non-Heme Iron

When it comes to heme vs non-heme iron, the main difference is the body’s rate of iron absorption. Heme iron is absorbed at a much higher rate than non-heme iron. It’s estimated that the body absorbs only 2-20% of non-heme iron. In comparison, heme iron has a 15-35% absorption rate.

Non-heme-based iron supplements are also more likely to result in side effects. Indigestion, stomach upset, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea are common complaints associated with some types of iron supplement.

While iron is essential to your overall health, there are some problems associated with overdoing your intake of heme iron. Dramatically increasing the amount of heme iron in your diet can lead to inflammation. And it can also cause damage to gut cells due to the production of hydroxyl, which is a free radical.

Your body finds it much easier to regulate iron absorption from plant-based foods. And although heme iron is more easily absorbed, the body is not so good at regulating the process. So, it’s important to find the right balance of heme vs non-heme iron.


Are They Absorbed Differently?

Just as there’s a difference in how the body absorbs heme and non-heme iron, absorption of iron supplements also varies.  A lot depends on how and when you take your iron supplements.

Vitamin C is known to help with iron absorption, and some supplements have to be taken with a glass of orange juice to maximise their performance. To get the best absorption, other iron supplements need to be taken along with food. Even with these measures, lots of people still experience the unwanted iron supplement side effects of nausea or an upset stomach. By contrast, Active Iron has twice the absorption compared to standard ferrous sulphate supplements. And it’s gentle formula means you can take it on an empty stomach.

Liquid iron supplements are often proposed as an alternative for those who experience side effects such as constipation or nausea. It’s suggested the liquid format is gentler on the stomach and easier for the body to absorb. However, manufacturers tend to make liquid iron supplements with low potency. This is because if a child accidentally drank liquid iron, they could face serious health complications.

Furthermore, some foods are known to affect your body’s ability to absorb iron. Health care professionals usually advise you to avoid taking iron supplements with tea, coffee, milk and dairy products. Wholegrain cereals with high levels of phytic acid are also best avoided.

How Much Heme Iron Do You Need?

 How much iron you need depends on your sex, age and lifestyle. As a general rule, women need more iron than men due to menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The EU uses a system called Nutrient Reference Value (NRV), which sets out the average daily amount of vitamins and minerals needed for good health. The NRV for iron is currently 14mg.

The US Department of Health has set out the following recommended daily allowance (RDA) for males and females depending on age.

Age Male Female Pregnancy Breastfeeding
1-3 years 7 mg 7 mg
4-8 years 10 mg 10 mg
9-13 years 8 mg 8 mg
14-18 years 11 mg 15 mg 27 mg 10 mg
19-50 years 8 mg 18 mg 27 mg 9 mg
51+ years 8 mg 8 mg

The RDA covers iron from all sources, both heme and non-heme, plus any iron supplements.

Vegetarians and vegans will need to eat twice as much iron in their diet as meat-eaters to achieve their RDA. Heme iron from meat and heme iron supplements is more easily absorbed by the body.

Furthermore, if you are an active athlete, then you may need more iron in your diet. The body’s muscles use iron to make energy. If you participate in endurance sports such as running, rowing and cycling, increasing your iron intake may enhance your overall performance. Iron helps by transporting oxygen to tired muscles more efficiently.

The Best Types of Iron Supplements

 So, what are the best types of iron supplements?

When selecting the right supplement for you, the main things to consider are:

  • iron absorption
  • potential side effects.

You want to select an iron supplement that has the maximum absorption with the minimum potential side effects.

Active Iron is a superior choice to other iron supplements. Kind and gentle to the stomach, Active Iron increases the amount of iron absorbed by targeting the body’s site of iron absorption in the intestine. In fact, Active Iron is clinically proven to have twice the absorption compared to standard ferrous sulfate iron supplements.

The groundbreaking technology in Active Iron works by protecting the iron with a special whey layer. This means whatever your needs, you will be getting the maximum amount of iron and reduced side effects.

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For Athletes

Active exercisers can top up their iron intake during periods of sustained and heavy training. Intense exercise can put your body under stress affecting your ability to absorb iron. However, you need more iron than ever to help optimise your performance.

Active Iron is the answer for many athletes. Certified by the Informed-Sport programme, you can be confident Active Iron is free from prohibited substances in sport. And you can also be confident Active Iron will help increase iron absorption, helping you give your best performance.



Many vegetarians, particularly women with periods, find it hard to get enough iron from food sources alone. As we have seen, plant-based non-heme iron is less easily absorbed by the body. However, for ethical reasons, many vegetarians do not want to take heme iron supplements.

And the good news is, Active Iron is a vegetarian-friendly supplement. The unique whey protein formula is also free from artificial preservatives, sugar, wheat and gluten. This makes Active Iron the preferred choice for many vegetarians wanting to supplement their iron intake.


Pregnant Women

During pregnancy, the body needs more iron to transport oxygen to parts of the body and your growing baby. The iron RDA for pregnant women increases from 18 mg to 27 mg. Many women find it a struggle to get all the iron they need through food alone.

Active Iron is perfectly safe to take during pregnancy. Its gentle formula is kind on your stomach, in a non-constipating formula  Best of all, Active Iron can help ensure you and your baby get all the essential iron you need.

Heme Iron Supplements: Conclusion

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to ensure you get enough iron – both heme and non-heme. However, sometimes you might need some extra help. Athletes, vegetarians, and pregnant women all have an increased need for iron.

Selecting the right heme iron supplement is a big decision. There are many things to weigh up, such as your iron requirements, lifestyle, and possible side effects.

Clinically proven to increase iron while being kind on the stomach, Active Iron is safe for pregnant women and is vegetarian friendly.

If you want to increase your iron intake without unwanted side effects, then Active Iron ticks all the boxes.


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