Minerals and the Plants You Can Find Them In

By Marni Wasserman

Minerals are naturally occurring substances that come from the earth and eventually return to the earth. They’re the basic building blocks of all matter! In essence, they’re the life force of most foods, especially plant-based foods, that make everything else work. Without minerals, your body wouldn’t thrive or function in an optimal way.

Following are the main minerals that plant-based eaters should include in their everyday diets. In the average diet, minerals often come from animal sources, but plants can also be a source of minerals (and, in some cases, plants provide more minerals than animal sources do).

Calcium

As the most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium is the most important for good health. Calcium is known for the development and maintenance of bones and teeth. In addition, calcium is required for muscle contraction and regulation of the heartbeat. Calcium can be found in many plant-based foods, and the good news is that it is also well absorbed.

Here are some top sources of calcium in the plant world:

  • Veggies: Beet greens, bok choy, parsley, and turnip greens

  • Fruits: Dried apricots and dried figs

  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds

  • Legumes: Soybeans and tofu

  • Sweets: Molasses and carob

Calcium supplements aren’t the same as naturally occurring calcium in whole foods. Supplements may pose a risk for heart health, as they can promote the buildup of plaque in the arteries, causing restriction of blood flow to the heart. Be sure to consult a health-care or nutrition professional before taking supplements.

Iodine

Iodine is a trace mineral required for healthy metabolism and thyroid function so the body can produce and regulate hormones. The best source of plant-based iodine is sea vegetables — dulse in particular, which is also low in sodium and a good source of seasoning instead of table salt.

You can also get iodine (and other minerals) from unrefined sea salt, and in general it’s lower in sodium than table salt.

Even with sea salt, you don’t want to overdo it. You need so little to reap the benefits and get enough flavor out of your food! A little bit goes a long way.

Iron

Iron’s found in every cell of the body, almost always combined with protein. Its main function is the formation of hemoglobin (the essential oxygen-carrying component of the red blood cell). You need iron to prevent fatigue and anemia. A variety of plant-based sources are abundant in iron:

  • Soybeans: Add raw beans or the processed form (organic tempeh or tofu) to stir-fries, sandwiches, salads, and whole-grain dishes.

  • Dried apricots and dried figs: Add into recipes for baked goods, granola, and trail mix, or eat them on their own.

  • Lentils and chickpeas: You can cook all varieties into soups, dips, salads, or stews.

  • Spinach and kale: Lightly steam them to eat as a side dish or add them into a smoothie, soup, sauce, pasta, or whole-grain dish.

  • Quinoa and millet: Cook and make into a salad, pilaf, or breakfast cereal.

Zinc

Zinc is vital for many body functions and is part of many enzyme systems. It helps maintain healthy skin and collagen formation and aids in wound healing. Plant-based zinc sources include whole grains, such as rye and oats. Nuts and seeds, such as Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds, are also great.

Mineral consumption: How much and how often

When it comes to minerals, make sure you’re taking in four or more servings of green leafy vegetables, other colorful vegetables, and fruits each day. These are the most abundant sources of calcium and iron in a plant-based diet. For zinc and iron, focus on two or more daily servings of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and whole grains.

Bad minerals

Yes, the mineral world contains some bad guys, too. They sometimes dress up like the good guys or hang out completely undetected. Two in particular to avoid are table salt and monosodium glutamate.

The common table salt with which most people are familiar is a derivative of sea salt, which has, unfortunately, been processed and, therefore, lost many of its vital minerals (such as iodine). To make table salt, manufacturers strip sea salt and then often lace it with bleach or anti-coagulating substances to make it “marketable.”

Ever notice that sea salt likes to clump? Well, that’s actually completely natural — the way salt is supposed to be. So ditch the table salt and change over to sea salt.

Kosher salt is popular, too, but it’s made up of sodium chloride just like table salt (and other processed salts). It has fewer additives than table salt, but many varieties contain anti-clumping agents. Stay away from the kosher salt and go straight for the best — sea salt.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a synthetic flavor enhancer that is traditionally used in Chinese food, but these days you can find it in many foods, such as breakfast sausages and potato chips. Understanding the pitfalls of MSG can be confusing.

Regular glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid that the body uses and needs. However, the synthetic manipulation and processing of glutamate produces a form (MSG) not found in nature. Synthetically re-creating a product of nature often produces less than desirable results.

MSG has been labeled an excitotoxin — a chemical that is thought to have the ability to overstimulate cells to death. Many people link headaches, flushing, poor attention, and other symptoms, as well as diseases like fibromyalgia, to MSG intake.