The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ironic Iron Impoverishment

Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Mike Adams of Natural News reports Wheaties cereal ... can be levitated with magnets.
Adding shards of metal to a cereal is not nutritionally equivalent to nutritive minerals formed during the growth of grain-producing plants...
To understand this issue it helps to know why the body needs iron in the first place. Hemoglobin is the protein that our red blood cells use for oxygen transport. This protein contains for Heme B groups. These four organic molecules contain one iron atom at their center.

Heme B, an iron-containing compound found in hemoglobin.
Fe is the chemical symbol for iron.
According to the CDC, Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States [1]. This disease is easily preventable via fortification of foods like breakfast cereal with iron.

There are two basic kinds of iron used to fortify foods, elemental iron powder, and salts like iron sulfate. The iron enrichment in question must be ferromagnetic because it is attracted by a magnet. This means it is iron powder, which is ferromagnetic, not iron salts, which are paramagnetic.

In general, the powders have lower bio-availability than iron salts [2, 3]. This is not to say the powders are bad. You have to use a few times more substance, some of which passes through the digestive system without being absorbed. That's fine, because they are still less expensive. Also, powder may be preferred to salts because the later can contribute an undesired taste.

The differing bio-availability is well known [4] and  has been taken into consideration when they print the label since 1973 [5]. Iron atoms taken up from powders are nutritionally equivalent to any other source.

Anyway, finding iron in breakfast cereal is not news. It's a popular kids science experiment!

I'm sure Mike's parents are really proud of him.

I was curious why the bits of iron were large enough to see, because particles in food-grade iron powder range in size from 0.5 to 10 micrometers [4]. That's smaller than a red blood cell. This small size increases bio-availability [5].

Presumably the flecks in this kids science experiment are clumps of the powder that have stuck together due to magnetism, or were not fully dissolved when added to the cereal mixture.

As if this story weren't bizarre enough, it has one final twist. You see, I know someone who would really get upset that Mike Adams is telling cereal manufacturers to put less nutrition in their product.

His name is 2004 Mike Adams.

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