Can Drinking Tea Hinder Iron Absorption From Food?

tea and iron absorption
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Studies have suggested that drinking coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages inhibits iron absorption, but can herbal tea, such as chamomile, peppermint, or ginger tea, also reduce iron absorption?

Tannins and oxalates are some of the naturally-occurring tea compounds that are said to inhibit the absorption of iron. They bind with iron, specifically non-heme iron found in plant foods such as beans, peas, leafy green vegetables, and nuts.

(The other type of iron, heme iron, is found in animal foods such as meat, chicken, and fish.)

Tannins found in black tea give it its dark reddish-brown color and characteristic full-bodied, astringent flavor. Tannins have different purposes, from protecting a plant from pests to promoting the growth of the plant.

Although the amount of tannins in black tea varies depending on the variety, growing condition, and processing method, black tea is considered one of the major sources of tannins in the human diet (other significant sources include red wine, oak-aged white wine, chocolate, and coffee).

Other types of tea, including green tea, white tea, and oolong tea, are also made from the same plant as black tea, known as Camellia sinensis. They generally contain different types of tannins. Factors like steeping time and the degree of fermentation affect the tannin content in tea. Fermented teas such as puerh and oolong tea typically contain more tannins than white tea.

Herbal teas (which are technically tisanes or infusions) can contain tannins. Although more is known about the effect of black tea on iron absorption, some claim that herbal tea, particularly higher-tannin tea, may inhibit iron.

Herbs and spices said to contain tannins include:

  • Hibiscus
  • Chamomile
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Guarana
  • Nettles
  • Peppermint
  • Red raspberry
  • Rose hip
  • Sage
  • Slippery elm
  • Thyme
  • Turmeric
  • Yerba mate

Rooibos and honeybush tea are sometimes said to be low in tannins, however, there is little evidence that the tannin content in fermented rooibos or honeybush is less than other teas.

The Research

At this point, very few studies have examined the effects of herbal tea on non-heme iron absorption. The available research includes a published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Researchers tested different teas and cocoa and found that they inhibited iron absorption. Inhibition by black tea was 79 to 94 percent, peppermint tea 84 percent, pennyroyal tea 73 percent, cocoa 71 percent, vervain tea 59 percent, lime flower tea 52 percent, and chamomile tea 47 percent. Adding milk had little or no influence on iron absorption.

In a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers determined the iron levels in 954 healthy adults and also estimated their tea intake and found that iron levels were not related to black, green, and herbal tea consumption. They also didn't find any relationship between the type or strength of tea, infusion time, and the time of tea drinking.

Other studies have found that the timing of tea drinking does influence iron absorption.

In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2017, for instance, researchers found that tea consumed with a meal decreased non-heme iron absorption, but that a tea consumption one hour after a meal didn't decrease iron absorption to the same extent. 

An earlier study, however, found that coffee (another beverage known to decrease non-heme iron absorption) didn't inhibit iron absorption when consumed one hour before a meal, but did inhibit iron absorption to the same degree when consumed with a meal or one hour later.

The Takeaway

It's not just the caffeine that is known to interfere with iron absorption.

Other substances, such as tannins and oxalates, which are found in herbal tea, also appear to affect iron absorption, but more research is needed.

If sipping a cup of tea with your meals is part of your daily ritual, consider having tea in between meals instead of with meals if your primary source of iron is from plant sources. Try having it at least one hour before meals.

If you have followed a vegetarian or vegan diet, have been told to reduce the tannins in your diet, or if you have iron-deficiency anemia, consult your healthcare provider about food and beverages that would suitable for you. 

A few additional tips:

Avoid over-steeping tea. Stick to the guidelines and avoid over-steeping to reduce the number of tannins and oxalates in tea.

Vitamin C improves the absorption of non-heme iron.

Keep in mind that too much iron in the body can cause problems. If you regularly drink tea and are concerned about whether you're absorbing the iron, talk with your healthcare provider before upping your intake of iron (particularly from supplements).

Sources:

Ahmad Fuzi SF, Koller D, Bruggraber S, et al. A 1-h time interval between a meal containing iron and consumption of tea attenuates the inhibitory effects on iron absorption: a controlled trial in a cohort of healthy UK women using a stable iron isotope. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Oct 18.

Hurrell RF, Reddy M, Cook JD. Inhibition of non-haem iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. Br J Nutr. 1999 Apr;81(4):289-95.

Mennen L, Hirvonen T, Arnault N, et al. Consumption of black, green and herbal tea and iron status in French adults. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Oct;61(10):1174-9.

Morck TA, Lynch SR, Cook JD. Inhibition of food iron absorption by coffee. Am J Clin Nutr. 1983 Mar;37(3):416-20.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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