Bioactive dietary polyphenols inhibit heme iron absorption in a dose-dependent manner in human intestinal Caco-2 cells

J Food Sci. Jun-Jul 2011;76(5):H143-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2011.02184.x. Epub 2011 May 4.


Although heme iron is an important form of dietary iron, its intestinal absorption mechanism remains elusive. Our previous study revealed that (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) and grape seed extract (GSE) markedly inhibited intestinal heme iron absorption by reducing the basolateral iron export in Caco-2 cells. The aim of this study was to examine whether small amounts of EGCG, GSE, and green tea extract (GT) could inhibit heme iron absorption, and to test whether the inhibitory action of polyphenols could be offset by ascorbic acid. A heme-⁵⁵Fe absorption study was conducted by adding various concentrations of EGCG, GSE, and GT to Caco-2 cells in the absence and presence of ascorbic acid. Polyphenolic compounds significantly inhibited heme-⁵⁵Fe absorption in a dose-dependent manner. The addition of ascorbic acid did not modulate the inhibitory effect of dietary polyphenols on heme iron absorption when the cells were treated with polyphenols at a concentration of 46 mg/L. However, ascorbic acid was able to offset or reverse the inhibitory effects of polyphenolic compounds when lower concentrations of polyphenols were added (≤ 4.6 mg/L). Ascorbic acid modulated the heme iron absorption without changing the apical heme uptake, the expression of the proteins involved in heme metabolism and basolateral iron transport, and heme oxygenase activity, indicating that ascorbic acid may enhance heme iron absorption by modulating the intracellular distribution of ⁵⁵Fe. These results imply that the regular consumption of dietary ascorbic acid can easily counteract the inhibitory effects of low concentrations of dietary polyphenols on heme iron absorption but cannot counteract the inhibitory actions of high concentrations of polyphenols.

Practical application: Bioactive dietary polyphenols inhibit heme iron absorption in a dose-dependent manner. The small amounts of polyphenolic compounds present in foods are capable of reducing heme iron transport across the intestinal enterocyte. However, the inhibitory effects of dietary polyphenolic compounds on heme iron absorption can be offset by ascorbic acid and can possibly be avoided by decreasing the consumption of polyphenols while simultaneously taking ascorbic acid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Ascorbic Acid / metabolism
  • Biological Transport / drug effects
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Catechin / analogs & derivatives
  • Catechin / pharmacology
  • Diet*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Enterocytes / drug effects
  • Enterocytes / metabolism
  • Grape Seed Extract / pharmacology
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / drug effects*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism
  • Intestines / cytology*
  • Intestines / drug effects
  • Iron, Dietary / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Iron, Dietary / blood*
  • Mice
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology*
  • Polyphenols / pharmacology*
  • Tea / chemistry


  • Antioxidants
  • Grape Seed Extract
  • Iron, Dietary
  • Plant Extracts
  • Polyphenols
  • Tea
  • Heme
  • Catechin
  • epigallocatechin gallate
  • Ascorbic Acid