Zinc 6

by Jack Norris, RD



Zinc is not found in large amounts in plant foods, but as far as can be detected, vegetarians have similar zinc status to non-vegetarians (1). Zinc is important for immunity and if you find you’re easily catching colds, a modest zinc supplement of about the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) might solve the problem.

Dietary Reference Intakes for Zinc

See Daily Needs for the zinc DRI.

Zinc Content of Plant Foods

The common plant foods highest in zinc are legumes, nuts, seeds, and oatmeal. The table below shows the zinc content of selected plant foods (2).

Zinc in Plant Foods
Food Preparation Serving mg
Oatmeal cooked 1 cup 2.3
Tofu firm, raw 1/2 cup 2.0
Cashews dry roasted 1/4 cup 1.9
Sunflower seeds roasted 1/4 cup 1.7
Garbanzo beans boiled 1/2 cup 1.3
Lentils boiled 1/2 cup 1.3
Peanuts raw 1/4 cup 1.2
Almonds whole 1/4 cup 1.1
Pecans halves 1/4 cup 1.1
Tempeh raw 1/2 cup 1.0
Kidney beans boiled 1/2 cup 1.0
Peas boiled 1/2 cup 1.0
Chia seeds dried 1 oz 1.0
Walnuts chopped 1/4 cup 0.9
Peanut butter 2 tbsp 0.9
Corn yellow, boiled 1 cup 0.9
Pinto beans boiled 1/2 cup 0.8
Pistachios 1/4 cup 0.7
Miso 1 tbsp 0.4
Broccoli boiled, chopped 1/2 cup 0.4

Zinc Deficiency

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include poor growth and delayed sexual maturation in children, poor wound healing, hair loss, impaired immune function, and dermatitis—especially around body orifices (3).

Zinc Absorption and Status of Vegetarians

Phytates, which are commonly found in plant foods, reduce zinc absorption, and some researchers have suggested that this increases the zinc needs of vegetarians by up to 50% (4).

In contrast, a 2013 meta-analysis showed vegans to have only a slightly lower serum zinc level than non-vegetarians, a difference of 1.17 ± 0.45 µmol/l (1). Average serum zinc levels are from 10 to 15 µmol/l (5), so it’s doubtful that the differences are meaningful (absolute values for serum zinc were not given in the analysis).

Protein increases zinc absorption. Because of this, foods high in protein and zinc, such as legumes and nuts, are good choices (6). The leavening of bread (most bread is leavened) and fermenting of soyfoods (tempeh and miso) also enhances zinc absorption (6).

Zinc Supplements

A modest zinc supplement up to 100% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) should be safe for those who are concerned or having symptoms of zinc deficiency. See Daily Needs for the DRI and Upper Limit for zinc.

Zinc gluconate and zinc citrate are two forms that are well-absorbed (7). There’s evidence, though weak, that zinc picolinate is also absorbed well (8).

Some people do not absorb zinc oxide (7).

Zinc gluconate may be the best choice due to lower levels of cadmium (9).


Last updated February 2014

1. Foster M, Chu A, Petocz P, Samman S. Effect of vegetarian diets on zinc status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies in humans. J Sci Food Agric. 2013 Apr 17.

2. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

3. Groff J, Gropper S. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, 3rd ed. Wadsworth: 2000.

4. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. (2001) Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Accessed 12/28/2010.

5. Dietary reference intakes: the essential guide to nutrient requirements. National Academy of Sciences. 2006.

6. Messina V, Mangels AR. Considerations in planning vegan diets: children. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001 Jun;101(6):661-9.

7. Wegmüller R, Tay F, Zeder C, Brnic M, Hurrell RF. Zinc absorption by young adults from supplemental zinc citrate is comparable with that from zinc gluconate and higher than from zinc oxide. J Nutr. 2014 Feb;144(2):132-6.

8. Barrie SA, Wright JV, Pizzorno JE, Kutter E, Barron PC. Comparative absorption of zinc picolinate, zinc citrate and zinc gluconate in humans. Agents Actions. 1987 Jun;21(1-2):223-8.

9. Krone CA, Wyse EJ, Ely JT. Cadmium in zinc-containing mineral supplements. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2001 Jul;52(4):379-82.

Also Reviewed

Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Zinc. Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. Accessed 12/15/2010.

Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jun 18;6:CD001364.

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  • If you have a question about whether it's okay to cut supplements in half or combine supplements to achieve the dose we recommend, the answer is “Yes.” Be aware that nutrient recommendations are only estimates—it's not necessary to consume the exact amount we recommend every single day.
  • We aren't able to respond to questions about which brands of supplements to take.
  • We cannot provide personal nutrition advice for specific health conditions. If you need private counseling, here's a list of plant-based dietitians and we especially recommend VeganHealth contributor Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN.
  • We urge you to consult with a qualified health professional for answers to your personal questions.

6 thoughts on “Zinc

  • Nikita Zhuk

    Dear Jack! This article https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/ states “The percentage of elemental zinc varies by form. For example, approximately 23% of zinc sulfate consists of elemental zinc; thus, 220 mg of zinc sulfate contains 50 mg of elemental zinc.”

    So I started to think about the real amounts on zinc in popular suplements on Iherb. I found only 1 explicit statement “Country Life always labels minerals in elemental weight.”
    Others just put it like “Zinc (zinc gluconate, zinc citrate) 15 mg = 136% of daily value” (By the way, different DV are used: some use 11 mg, some 15 mg as 100%)

    Could you please comment on all that?

    • Taylor Wolfram

      Hi Nikita – The amount of zinc listed on the Nutrition Facts panel should be the amount of elemental zinc. The daily value for zinc has recently been changed to 11mg.

  • Dan Louie

    I’ve been taking a 50mg chelated zinc pill that I got from an OTC health provider. I thought it was safe. But now reading the comments it iffy at best.

  • Daniel

    Where do you find zinc supplements that (a) are around the DRI, and (b) have enough copper to offset the extra zinc?

    All of the ones I have found so far either have (a) 50 mg, which is over the safe upper level, and or (b) have no copper. \

    I know you used to take Deva’s Calcium Magnesium Plus, but I am trying to get rid of multis altogether, and it has calcium carbonate, which gives me terrible GI symptoms, consistently.