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Nutrition Column

Hold the Chili Please

In an attempt to limit dietary sodium many health conscious eaters are experimenting with different seasonings in their diets. Two popular ones are chili powder and tumeric. For centuries these have been used by certain cultures in dishes that are mainstays of their diet.

A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition (December 2006) found a potential problem with one of these - chili powder, which decreases the absorption of iron in the body. Researchers conducted experiments on ten healthy women to explore the impact chili powder and tumeric seasonings had on iron absorption. The subjects ate rice based meals containing vegetables and iron fortified fish. One meal was without either spice, the second meal contained chili powder, and the third meal contained tumeric. One surprising and important finding is that, at best, less than ten percent of the ingested iron was absorbed!

Iron absorption was 38 percent lower for the meal with chili than either of the other two meals (6.0%compared to 9.7% for the meal without either spice). Tumeric did not inhibit absorption of iron compared to the meal with no spice.

Iron is an important micronutrient that allows oxygen to bind to hemoglobin in the blood. Essentially, iron assists in the transportation of oxygen throughout the body so your organs can function properly.

Iron is of particular concern to premenopausal women because they are losing iron rich blood as a result of menstruation. This raises an important issue presented in this article because less than 10% of the iron was absorbed by the body in all of the experimental meals. For women whose iron stores are being depleted (premenopausal women), iron intake must be higher than suggested simply because a very limited amount of iron is actually absorbed when compared to the amount ingested. However, on the other side of the argument, men and post menopausal women do not need a large intake of iron because their stores are recycled instead of depleted. In fact, excess iron can lead to increased risk of heart disease or toxicity.

The best way to intake the proper amount of iron is to eat iron rich foods such as red meat, spinach, kale, red peppers, and cream of wheat. If your doctor has instructed you to take an iron supplement, take it with citrus juice because vitamin C increases iron absorption. The recommended dietary intake for iron is 15 milligrams per day for premenopausal women and 10 to 12 milligrams per day for men and postmenopausal women.

For the chili lovers out there, hold off and wait to use the powder liberally when you have already met your recommended daily iron intake. And eat your chili in a separate meal from your iron supplement or iron-rich food sources.

Written by Aaron Losey, B.A. Kinesiology, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA