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Most living things need iron to survive and thrive. This mineral is vital for healthy red blood cells in people and animals, and plants need iron to produce chlorophyll, which is vital for healthy cell function and gives the plant its green color. When dietary sources don't provide enough iron, a supplement may be needed for optimum health. Chelated iron is simply iron that has undergone chelation, a chemical process that firmly binds the iron molecule to another substance, usually an amino acid.
Chelation forms a more stable ring-shaped molecule that is easier for plants and animals to absorb. Iron from dietary sources is bound to amino acids naturally, and chelation attempts to make supplemental iron more similar to these naturally occurring sources. Cells have membranes that allow some substances to pass through, while blocking others. Chelated iron, disguised as amino acids, is thought to pass through the cell membrane more easily, allowing the iron inside the cell where it is needed.
The effectiveness of this type of iron supplements is debated. While advertisers tout the benefits of chelated minerals, some skeptics point out that once they enter the digestive tract, the chemical bond is broken down anyway. The minerals are then handled by the body in the same way as their non-chelated counterparts. Skeptics contend that paying more for such supplements is simply a waste of money.
Many plant owners have noticed a dramatic improvement in the health of their plants after adding chelated iron to the soil, however, and for them, the benefits are worth the extra cost. In humans and animals, it is more difficult to determine whether this type of iron is more readily absorbed. Any number of factors can interfere with the body's ability to absorb iron, including the presence of other minerals and certain illnesses. With all these different variables, it is hard to prove that this type is superior to other supplements. Since there doesn't seem to be any harm in taking it, the decision to pay the higher price is a matter of personal choice.
As a plant nutrient, chelated iron can be purchased at a local home store or nursery. It is available in liquid form to be added to a gardener's current plant-feeding routine. The iron is also added to many pre-mixed combination fertilizers, which can be purchased in liquid, powder, or granulated form. For people and animals, supplements can be found anywhere people normally purchase vitamins, and shoppers should look for "iron chelates" on the label. As with any supplement, individuals should always read and follow the manufacturer's directions for use, and consult a medical professional if they have any questions or concerns.