Manufacturers of breakfast cereals proudly advertise that their cereals offer 100% of all nutrients in a serving. A scientist decided to test for iron. Was there iron in the cereal? Sure enough, he found iron filings. His video shows the scientist opening a new box of cereal like Wheaties or Total. He crushes the flakes some, then mixes its contents with water to soften the flakes. Finally, a magnet passes over the cereal.
The magnet becomes loaded with iron filings! Almost immediately, internet postings launch themselves warning this form of iron does not benefit the body and is, in fact, poison to the body. One says, “What you don’t know may actually kill you!”
Why Fortified Breakfast Cereals Are Needed
Fortifying means, “to make strong or increase the strength of.”
Cereal manufacturers fortify your breakfast cereal with iron to correct an otherwise dietary insufficiency created by traditional food in the diet lacking iron. Depending on the type of cereal, different fortification or enrichment may take place. For example, cereal made from flour must contain specified amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, iron, and folic acid. If you’re interested, the FDA has the relevant guidelines here.
Ultimately, the goal is to provide a balance of vitamins, minerals, and protein in proportion to the total caloric value of the food.
However, you preferably want this in the most simple, natural and bioavailable, easily digestible form.
Fortifying Cereal with Iron
To fortify a breakfast cereal, the iron, along with other vitamins and minerals, is first mixed in with the grains, salt, water and, if applicable, other flavoring agents and/or sweeteners. This mixture is then cooked. To create flakes, the cooked grains are flattened between rollers under tons of pressure. Once the flakes are made, the iron is well incorporated into the product and cannot be seen by the consumer.
As it is in Earth’s rocks and soil, the iron in your breakfast cereal is attached to the other substances around it. But when you crush the cereal down, it helps to free up the iron particles, so they can be picked up by the magnet (dissolving the other parts of the cereal frees up the iron even more).
If you have ever seen rocks or dirt that have a red or orange tint to them, they most likely contain iron; iron tends to rust when it is exposed to oxygen, causing that rusty red color on old metal objects—or rocks! Iron also plays an important role in our bodies. It is found in a part of our blood called hemoglobin, which helps our blood to carry oxygen molecules from our lungs to the rest of our bodies.
Our bodies can’t produce iron, but it’s naturally present in many foods, including meats (beef, pork, turkey), produce (raisins, spinach, prunes) and nuts (walnuts, cashews, peanuts). And it’s so important for our bodies to have enough iron that some food makers put a dash of it in other food products—such as fortified breakfast cereal. (Of course it wouldn’t be healthy to eat iron on its own, so stick to getting your daily dose via food and vitamins.)
Like many metals, iron is magnetic, so if you have a strong enough magnet, you will be able to pick it up. Will you be able to pick up your box of breakfast cereal just by magnetic force alone? No, because it doesn’t contain enough iron for the magnetism to overpower gravity pulling the weight of all that cereal down. But we are going to find a way to remove—or “extract”—the iron from that cereal and pick it up with a magnet.
What does your breakfast cereal have in common with Earth’s crust? They both have some of the same materials in them. It might seem strange to compare a bowl of cornflakes to a pile of dirt. But science can help us find one of the most common elements on Earth in your cereal: iron.
Even though iron only makes up less than 5 percent of the mass on Earth, it is found in a lot of places: rocks, cereal—and even in your blood! It’s also the most frequently used metal on the planet; it makes up most of steel, which is a mixture of iron and other ingredients.
Different Types of Iron Fortification
Iron (III) phosphate and iron (II) sulfate are commonly added to packaged food products, but believe it or not, some manufacturers dose your food with iron filings. Are there food grade quality iron filings? Turns out, yes. This is OK! The acid in your stomach converts this iron into a form that your body can absorb. The method used in this experiment detects iron by measuring the amount of light absorbed by the highly colored complex formed between iron (II) or ferrous ion (Fe2+) in the sample and o-phenanthroline. This method was also used in “Determination of Iron in Water”.
Some cereal manufacturers prefer to add particles of pure iron metal (called elemental iron or reduced iron) because elemental iron is stable in storage and does not affect the cereal’s fl avor. Not all cereals contain the same amount of iron, and this information can be found on the Nutrition Facts panel.