For Dietitians Week 2021, Vegan Society Dietitian Heather Russell has been working with the British Dietetic Association to get people talking about iodine and fortification. Here, she explains why it’s important for everyone to know about iodine, as well as providing simple solutions to help vegans get enough.
What is iodine?
Here at The Vegan Society, we have noticed that many people search for information about vitamin B12 but iodine is not a popular topic. We are on a mission to get people talking about this nutrient because it is an essential mineral. But you don’t just have to take our word for it. Dr Julie Abayomi is Chair of the BDA England Board, and a research officer for the BDA Maternal and Fertility Nutrition Specialist Group. Julie says, “iodine is a key part of the thyroid hormones that are needed for many body processes including growth, metabolism and for the development of a baby’s brain during pregnancy and early life. The public need to be more aware of the essential role of iodine in the diet, particularly among those of childbearing age and during pregnancy.”
Iodine in UK diets
During the 20th century, farmers started supplementing the feed of farmed animals with iodine because research showed that this could make their businesses more productive. This also resulted in a huge increase in the iodine content of cow’s milk, particularly during the winter months when grass is limited. In the UK, people who consume dairy rely on this source of iodine because there is no iodine fortification programme. This means that iodine deserves special attention among those of us who do not consume dairy.
As a rule of thumb, it is good to be selective about supplementation – it should complement a balanced and varied intake of plant-based foods. Most plants do not require iodine for their growth, so the contents of plant foods vary and tend to be low. A steady and adequate dietary intake of iodine is important for thyroid health. One reliable option is to top up your intake using a daily supplement containing up to 150 micrograms in the form of potassium iodide or potassium iodate – an approach recommended during pregnancy planning, pregnancy and breastfeeding due to the critical role of iodine in early brain development. Some people choose to take a vitamin and mineral supplement designed for vegans like The Vegan Society’s VEG 1. Anyone taking medication for a thyroid condition should seek advice from their doctor because the guidance on iodine is different.
Fortified plant-based alternatives to milk
During recent years, some manufacturers have reformulated their products and launched new ones, increasing the availability of iodine-fortified plant-based alternatives to milk. This is not standard practice, so it is necessary to check the nutrition information on labels for evidence of iodine fortification and the amount added – around 25 micrograms per 100ml is ideal. If a product is fortified to this level, consuming around 500ml (half a carton) daily provides nearly 90% of a UK adult’s iodine requirement. This is my recommendation to vegans relying on this source of iodine.
Since these products are often fortified with other essential nutrients like calcium, they can be a nutritionally valuable and versatile staple food. For example, you can add fortified plant-based alternatives to milk to breakfast cereal and use them in cooking and drinks throughout the day. This is particularly helpful for people replacing dairy.
So, next time you reach for your favourite plant-based alternative to milk, look for iodine. If it isn’t present and fortification would make the product a better fit for your diet, consider contacting the manufacturer to highlight the British Dietetic Association’s call to market leaders to fortify staple alternative products sold in the UK with iodine.
Let’s get people talking about iodine!
If you have concerns about your diet, please talk to your doctor about seeing a dietitian. Discussing the use of supplements with a health professional will help to ensure that they are suitable for you.