In vitro estimation of iron availability from a range of plant foods: influence of phytate, ascorbate and citrate

Br J Nutr. 1987 Mar;57(2):223-33. doi: 10.1079/bjn19870028.


Plant foods were digested in vitro and the proportion of iron which diffused across a semi-permeable membrane was used as an index of Fe availability. The mean (with SEM) Fe diffusibility from a group of eighteen cereals, legumes and nuts was very low, 2.1 (0.25)%, whereas from a group of sixteen fruits and vegetables it was high, 31.7 (1.09)%. The difference between the two food groups was highly significant (P less than 0.001). The results for Fe diffusibility correlated well with literature values for the in vivo absorption of Fe from similar foods (r0.84, P less than 0.01). When phytate, citrate and ascorbate were added to selected foods in amounts corresponding to endogenous levels, only phytate and citrate gave the expected effects on Fe diffusibility. Ascorbate only enhanced Fe diffusibility to the expected extent when it was added in much larger amounts, not normally found in foods. When added to cereal foods, orange juice was found to enhance greatly Fe diffusibility even when its content of ascorbate was completely destroyed by boiling followed by prolonged storage. When citrate and ascorbate were added to cereal foods in amounts equivalent to those found in fresh orange juice, both enhanced Fe diffusibility but citrate was far more effective. It is concluded that phytate is a major inhibitor of Fe diffusibility in cereals, legumes and nuts. However, citrate rather than ascorbate would appear to be the major enhancer of Fe diffusibility from many fruits and vegetables. The implications of the present results are discussed in relation to the relative influence of phytate, citrate and ascorbate on dietary Fe availability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ascorbic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Citrates / pharmacology*
  • Citric Acid
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Iron / analysis*
  • Nutritive Value / drug effects
  • Phytic Acid / pharmacology*
  • Plants, Edible / analysis*


  • Citrates
  • Citric Acid
  • Phytic Acid
  • Iron
  • Ascorbic Acid