It's easy to forget that bacteria and viruses need food, too, and when they infect us, we are it. Depriving bacterial and viral pathogens of iron, German scientists have discovered, is one of the ways the body beats infections.
Before Americans became hooked on television series like Top Chef and Chopped, back in the era when obesity was a relatively rare phenomenon, American popular culture focused on a different kind of nutritional obsession, iron. Everybody was assumed to be deficient in iron. Everybody was assumed to need the pick-me-up of an astonishingly popular product called Geritol.
The basic ingredients in Geritol were beverage alcohol, which contributed to its popularity, and iron in the form of ferric ammonium citrate. The product also contained some B vitamins. Playing on another American cultural fixation, mothers making their children eat liver to get the iron in it, Geritol's slogan was "twice the iron in a pound of calf's liver." Each daily dose of the product contained 50 to 100 mg of elemental iron, about 12 times the amount required by an adult and nine times the amount required by a teenager.
Geritol claimed to cure iron-deficiency anemia, and stayed in front of the public by sponsoring, in an era when families could only get a few channels on aerial television, wildly popular programs such as The Lawrence Welk Show and Ted Mack's Original Comedy Hour, as well as a mostly-ignored but now well-known television series, the original Star Trek.
The makers of Geritol were taken to court by the US Federal Trade Commission in 1959. Court battles continued for 14 years, in which the government established that the company made claims that were "excessive to the point of being reckless." Once one of the best known brands of consumer products in the USA, Geritol largely disappeared from the market in the 1980's.
Does Everyone Need Supplemental Iron Today?
There is no doubt that everyone needs iron. Every cell in the human body depends on oxygen brought to it by the iron-bound proteins myoglobin and hemoglobin. Iron acts as a pro-oxidant, helping the immune system generate hydrogen peroxide to dissolve invading pathogenic organisms.
Every cell in the body uses iron to make the energy storage molecule ATP, iron is critical to the process of sensing low oxygen levels, and liver enzymes that detoxify harmful substances depend on the action of iron.
There is also no doubt that most people do not need supplemental iron. In countries where most people eat red meat, about 4 to 8 percent of women who have not yet reached menopause are deficient in iron. In countries where the diet is vegetarian or vegan, up to 50 percent of the population, both male and female, is iron-deficient. For the majority of people, however, the problem is too much iron, not too little.
The Problem Of Too Much Iron
In the United States and Canada, everyday foods such as bread, cereals, and anything made with wheat flour are fortified with iron. The result is that many North Americans get too much iron. Excessive iron levels interfere with liver enzymes. They increase insulin resistance, the driving force behind weight gain and type 2 diabetes. They lead to skin problems and increase the risk of liver cancer. It is also important to understand that iron is not just an essential nutrient for humans. It is also food for the microorganisms that cause infections.