By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

QUESTION: “As a vegan, getting enough iron is important to me. Some supplement companies say that vitamin C helps with absorbing iron, but do I really need to take a vitamin C supplement? Is vitamin C from my food enough?”

ANSWER: Vitamin C supplements are not usually needed to help with iron absorption. For the most part, you can get enough vitamin C from your everyday diet.

While it is true that vitamin C makes it easier for iron from plant foods to be absorbed, questions arise as to how much vitamin C is needed to promote absorption. Older studies of iron and vitamin C found that as much as four times more iron was absorbed from a single meal when the meal included more than 75 milligrams of vitamin C1. Children in India with iron-deficiency anemia were given 100 milligrams of vitamin C at lunch and dinner for two months. Most of them recovered from the anemia2. Higher doses of vitamin C (300-2,000 milligrams daily) do not seem to have a significant effect on iron status3. These results suggest that vitamin C intakes of 50-100 milligrams with meals, a level that can be achieved from food, can effectively promote iron absorption.

The average American gets plenty of vitamin C; most studies show that vegans’ vitamin C intakes are even higher than those of non-vegetarians4. Many of us know that citrus fruits are good sources of vitamin C, but other fruits and vegetables like cantaloupe, tomatoes, red peppers, and broccoli also provide vitamin C.

Examples of foods that supply 50-100 milligrams of vitamin C include:

  • 1 cup cantaloupe
  • 1 orange
  • 1 kiwi
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 10 strawberries
  • ½ raw green pepper
  • 1 cup raw broccoli or cauliflower
  • 1 cup cooked kale or Brussels sprouts

Iron absorption can also be enhanced by not drinking coffee and tea with meals.

For more information on iron, check out


1 Hunt JR, Gallagher SK, Johnson LK. 1994. Effect of ascorbic acid on apparent iron absorption by women with low iron stores. Am J Clin Nutr 59:381-85.
2 Cook JD, Reddy MB. 2001. Effect of ascorbic acid intake on nonheme-iron absorption from a complete diet. Am J Clin Nutr 73:93-98.
3 Seshadri S, Shah A, Bhade S. 1985. Hematological response of anaemic preschool children to ascorbic acid supplementation. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr 39:151-54.
4 Mangels R, Messina V, Messina M. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets, 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2011.

Written by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, and Julia Warren, dietetics student and VRG volunteer.

QUESTION: “I am trying to take my grandmother's Southern recipes and make them more healthful. What are some ideas to make them meat-free and more suitable for my diet?”

ANSWER: There are many delicious ways to make Southern recipes more healthful and meat-free.

One qualm about Southern food is the amounts of saturated and total fat that are present. Many traditional Southern dishes are either pan-fried or deep-fried in a large amount of oil. Fatback, lard, and butter are also heavily used in Southern cooking as seasonings, in frying, and in baking. The issues with these fats are the amount used and their saturated fat content. In addition, the sodium content of many Southern dishes is a concern. Greens and fried foods are often heavily salted.

Coming from a Southern background, I have eaten my share of collard greens cooked with ham hocks. I actually prefer a more healthful way to make collards, which involves the monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil. Instead of simmering collards with chicken stock and a ham hock, sauté collards in olive oil with fresh garlic or garlic powder for a few minutes until the leaves become bright green. You can either serve the greens like this with a side of vinegar or, for more tender greens, add vegetable stock to cover and allow to simmer until the desired texture is reached. If using the vegetable stock method, you can either eat as is or place the mixture in a food processor and process, making a thick collard purée. This purée is a perfect alternative to mashed potatoes; all you have to do is add a teaspoonful more of olive oil, salt to taste, and, if desired, nutritional yeast.

To make Southern-style kale with no cooking required, wash 10 cups of fresh kale (which is approximately a 27-ounce bag that could feed 4-6) and remove the stems. For a rustic dish, rip the kale leaves into small pieces; for a more refined dish, cut the kale leaves into thin ribbons, the size of shredded cabbage for coleslaw. Place the prepared kale into a bowl. Then, use a food processor to combine a handful of raw sunflower seeds, 11/2 Tablespoons of your favorite vinegar, 1 Tablespoon of mustard, 1 Tablespoon of olive oil, and 2 teaspoons of nutritional yeast. Season with salt and pepper, and add water to attain a consistency of thick salad dressing, like Caesar salad dressing. Once the desired consistency is attained, pour this dressing over the kale leaves, toss, and either eat immediately or cover and marinate in the refrigerator for up to one day.

The great thing about this dressing is that you can create your own flair by adding completely different ingredients. Try incorporating other nuts or seeds, such as cashews or pepitas, or ingredients like olives, shallots, pickled jalapeños, or hot sauce. Whenever I make this kale salad at home, it is always different, depending on the ingredients that I find in my pantry.

For me, a characteristic flavor profile of Southern food is smoke. The meat products used in many vegetable dishes tend to add a smoky flavor. One way to attain this smoky flavor without adding meat is by grilling. Try taking whole romaine lettuce leaves and tossing them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place the lettuce onto a hot grill and cook until the leaves are wilted but still retain their color. Do not be afraid if you see grill marks on the lettuce because this is where the flavor is! Serve with the dressing for kale, which is described above, to emphasize the smoky flavor.

Another tasty Southern dish is black-eyed peas, which are sometimes made with fatback or lard. My favorite way to cook black-eyed peas involves a little Asian influence. I use 1 teaspoon of peanut oil and 1/4 cup of lite coconut milk per 2 cups of cooked black-eyed peas. If you like things saucier, add more lite coconut milk and a splash of soy sauce for that fantastic umami flavor. Season with 2 teaspoons each of minced garlic and nutritional yeast, and add salt to taste. To make this dish even heartier, serve the black-eyed peas over brown or wild rice.

Written by Amanda J. Gilley, a culinary nutrition student from Johnson & Wales during an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.