Iron-Rich Cherry Cacao Smoothie - by Jenna Volpe RDN LD CLT at Whole-istic Living

Iron-Rich Cherry Cacao Smoothie

What better way to make an iron-rich smoothie than with the delicious, delightful, amourous combination of cherries and cacao (plus a hint of camu camu powder for vitamin C)?!

There are a bajillion smoothie recipes out there – but not all of them are going to taste refreshingly satisfying AND provide you with a powerhouse of energizing, blood-building nutrients… 

High iron smoothies are becoming increasingly popular, because they leverage the power of iron-rich superfoods (like cacao and leafy greens) in combination with vitamin C from fruits.  This is the ideal combo for people who want to build and maintain healthy iron levels, without having to eat lots of red meat or rely on iron pills which upset the gut. 

As a functional dietitian, holistic nutritionist, and also as someone who has successfully reversed iron deficiency anemia naturally (without iron pills), trust me when I insist this iron-rich cherry cacao smoothie is truly the best of both worlds. (Ooh la la, a oui oui!) 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate and as an affiliate for Mountain Rose Herbs, I may make a small commission on qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you!

Nerding out on nutrients

Whether you’re having this blood-building, iron-boosting smoothie as a meal or snack, it should ideally provide you with the right balance of macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) AND micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) –  so you’ll feel energized, nourished, and sustained for at least a few hours or longer.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients, aka “macros”, are the ‘big’ nutrients that give us calories (aka energy or fuel for the body).  We need these types of nutrients in relatively large quantities, (i.e. grams versus milligrams or micrograms), so it will come as no surprise that “macro” means “big”. (Go figure!)

The three types of macros (and the only nutrients that provide calories) are carbs, proteins, and fats.

Carbohydrates

Your body runs primarily on carbs (in the form of glucose, or blood sugar) for energy. 

  • Carbs aren’t bad – we all need them to live.  (Did you know the brain can ONLY run on glucose for energy?) When you’re following a too-low carb diet for too long, you’ll likely feel exhausted and depleted.

In this smoothie recipe, you’ll get a healthy dose of carbs from the cherries and dates (or sweetener of your choice) for a boost in energy and vitality via blood glucose.

Proteins

Proteins help to build and sustain muscle, make enzymes, and lots more.  

Adding a source of protein in your smoothie will also help “buffer” the digestion and absorption of the carbs, slowing down the rate that your blood sugar rises, giving you a longer and more steady, gradual rise in energy versus a quick, fleeting burst.

  • Combining carbs (like cherries and dates) with protein (like a protein powder) will help you to feel fuller and more energized for longer. 

Fats

Your body uses fats to nourish your brain and nervous system, maintain healthy hormone production, absorb fat-soluble vitamins, and much more!  

Like proteins, fats also take longer than carbs to break down in the gut.  Including an element of fat (such as nut butter) in your smoothie will help you to feel fuller and satiated for longer.

Fiber

While fiber isn’t technically a nutrient (since it can’t get broken down by the human gut), it’s often listed under the carbohydrates category because structurally speaking, fiber is a type of carb.

Fiber helps support digestion and balance blood sugar by providing roughage, which adds bulk to stool and which also slows down the rate that carbs turn into sugar in your blood.

Long story short: Fiber = healthier blood sugar and more sustenance!

Micronutrients

We need micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) just as much as we need macronutrients to survive and thrive!

Micronutrients, as I mentioned earlier, are a category of nutrients that don’t provide energy in the form calories, but which are required in much smaller amounts (such as milligrams, versus grams) for energy production and other functions in the body.  And as you could probably guess, “micro” means “small”.

Iron and vitamin C, a special dynamic duo, are the two key micronutrients found in this recipe. I’ll also share a tidbit on calcium, a mineral which blocks iron absorption.

What is iron?

Iron is the mineral involved in making and maintaining healthy red blood cells in the body.  

The two key iron-rich “superfoods” included in this smoothie recipe are cacao powder (the unrefined version of cocoa powder) and leafy greens (such as spinach, kale, or parsley).

There are two types of iron we can get from food:  heme iron, and non-heme iron.

Heme iron

Heme iron is the form of iron our body prefers and absorbs easily.  Heme iron is found only in animals, because it comes from hemoglobin in blood.

That said, the iron rich foods in this smoothie don’t contain any heme iron; they’re sources of only non-heme iron.

Non-heme iron

People who don’t eat meat for one reason or another (or people who are trying to reduce their consumption of meat) may need to rely more on plant foods and iron-rich blood building herbs.

Either way, in order to absorb and use non-heme iron from plant-based foods and herbs, we need to combine it with vitamin C!

Vitamin C and non-heme iron absorption

Vitamin C is a type of micronutrient which acts as a cofactor (helper) in hundreds if not thousands of chemical reactions in the body every second.  Vitamin C is necessary for everything from immunity to healthy skin cells, to combating inflammation and enhancing iron absorption!

Combining vitamin C-rich foods (like camu camu powder, citrus, or berries) with plant-based source of iron serves to “activate” non-heme iron, converting it to usable heme iron. (1)

Calcium and iron absorption

Calcium is a mineral which is most well-known for supporting healthy bones. 

You’ll likely notice I don’t include any dairy ingredients in this recipe, because dairy is notoriously high in calcium, and calcium and iron clash! (2)

  • In other words, calcium and iron tend to compete for the same absorption sites in the gut, to get through the gut wall into the bloodstream. (This is why people with iron deficiency anemia are often advised not to take their iron supplements with a glass of milk!)

Iron deficiency anemia 101

When we don’t get enough usable iron over time, for one reason or another, it leads to a condition called iron deficiency anemia, which is essentially a deficiency in the size and/or count of red blood cells because of low iron intake. 

This iron-rich smoothie is ideal for people with iron deficiency anemia because it helps you to boost iron intake naturally from food, helping to reduce/minimize symptos.  Iron-boosting smoothies can also be helpful in maintaining healthy iron levels once you’ve stabilized.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia

If you’ve made it to this recipe, chances are you or someone you care about has experienced at least a few of the following symptoms of iron deficiency, including but not limited to:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Brittle nails, pale nail beds
  • Low tolerance to cold
  • Poor circulation (i.e. easily prone to “pins and needles” and/or cold hands and feet)
  • Low exercise endurance (i.e. getting winded after a brisk walk)
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hair loss
  • Low immunity
  • Bruising easily
  • Chest pain
  • Pica (cravings for non-food substances such as ice, chalk, or dirt)

Probiotics and iron absorption

Did you know iron and probiotics are surprisingly compatible?

  • Probiotics from either functional probiotic-rich foods or probiotic supplements seem to help improve iron absorption into the gut. (3)

In this iron-rich smoothie recipe, I’ve made sure to include a recommendation for dairy-free probiotic yogurt as an optional add-in, in case you’re feeling extra fancy!

Anatomy of an iron-rich smoothie

Ingredients

Frozen pitted cherries for smoothie

3/4 cup frozen pitted cherries 

Cherries are also the perfect sweet, tangy, tart and hydrating match to complement the rich, smooth, bitter, dark, astringent flavors and aromas of cacao.

Pro-tip: make sure the frozen cherries you buy are already pitted, or you can also wash, pit and freeze your own cherries!

Iron-rich cacao powder

2 TBSP (1/8 cup) cacao powder 

This iron-rich, antioxidant-packed, plant-based “superfood” is the co-star of the smoothie! 

  • Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the less refined variation of cocoa powder, which most people are familiar with as a source of chocolate.

Just a few tablespoons of cacao powder will provide 2 milligrams of iron (20% daily value for men, and over 10% daily value for menstruating women) along with a generous dose of copper, magnesium, and potassium. 

Cacao is a natural food source of prebiotics (food for supporting the probiotic ‘good’ bacteria in the gut).

Cacao also contains high levels of antioxidants (inflammation-combating, anti-aging chemicals) comparable to those found in green tea. Don’t mind if I do!

Iron rich spinach for smoothie

1/4 cup leafy greens

Whether you go with fresh or frozen, a handful or two of leafy greens will pack a powerful punch in your iron-rich smoothie.  

From blood-building iron and B vitamins (like folate), to bone-building vitamin K and magnesium, plus vitamin C beta carotene, and other antioxidants, leafy greens are generally a staple I try to include at least once a day!

There are dozens of types of leafy greens out there for you to choose from, but in this recipe I recommend one of the following options for optimal taste, palatability, and of course for boosting iron levels:

  • Spinach
  • Parsley
  • Baby kale
  • Supergreens

Spoonful of almond butter for smoothie

1 TBSP nut butter or seed butter

In this smoothie, I’ve made sure to include a dollop of nut butter (or seed butter) as a healthy fat, to help boost mineral content while promoting satiety and sustenance.   

Cashew butter is my personal favorite because it contains the most iron (0.8 milligrams of iron per tablespoon!).

Take your pick from any of the following:

  • Almond butter
  • Cashew butter
  • Coconut manna
  • Pecan butter
  • Pumpkin seed butter
  • Sunflower seed butter
  • Walnut butter

Scoop of collagen peptides sitting on a tablecloth

1 scoop protein powder

There are a variety of simple, whole food based protein powder options for you to choose from, so you’ll reap all the benefits! (I didn’t include any dairy-based protein powders, because the calcium naturally found in whey and casein could potentially interfere with iron absorption.)

You can’t go wrong with any of the following:

  • Hemp protein
  • Rice protein
  • Pea protein
  • Collagen peptides

Glass of cashew milk on a table - placed next to some whole cashews

3/4 cup milk substitute of choice

I recommend choosing from one of the following, provided it’s unsweetened with no fillers to optimize gut health, and ideally one with no added calcium to maximize iron absorption.

(A few of my favorite go-to options are Malk, Rise, Elmhurst, or this easy homemade maple pecan milk!)

  • Almond
  • Cashew
  • Coconut
  • Flax
  • Oat
  • Pecan
  • Walnut

2 pitted Medjool dates

2 pitted Medjool dates

The original version of this smoothie recipe calls for 2 pitted Medjool dates, since dates are packed with blood-building nutrients and have been shown to help improve iron levels among kiddos with iron deficiency! (4

But you can also use maple syrup, raw honey, or agave nectar depending on what you prefer and what you’ve got on-hand.

1/4 teaspoon camu camu powder

Did you know just ONE teaspoon of this Amazon forest-originating, cherry-like superfood contains 760% daily value of vitamin C?!

  • For a bit of cotrast, 3/4 cup of frozen pitted cherries sadly only contains only 2 milligrams (about 2% daily value) of vitamin C.

Since I want you to get as much iron as possible, I made sure to include 1/4 teaspoon of camu camu powder in this smoothie recipe for your benefit.  If you’re going for the iron boosting benefits in this smoothie, please don’t skip this ingredient! 😉

(If you don’t have any camu camu on hand, but you’d like to boost the vitamin C in your smoothie, you can also swap the cherries for a vitamin C-rich alternative like strawberries or raspberries.)

Substitutions and variations

Low FODMAP

  • Swap the cherries for berries
  • Opt for almond, pecan, walnut, or coconut-based milk
  • Swap the dates for real maple syrup
  • Use hemp, pea, rice, or collagen protein powder

GAPS

  • Choose nut milk or coconut milk (not oat)
  • Use dates or raw honey (not maple syrup)
  • Use hemp based protein powder or collagen peptides

Paleo

  • Choose nut milk or coconut milk (not oat)
  • Use hemp based protein powder or collagen peptides

Nut allergies

  • Use oat milk or coconut milk
  • Use sunflower seed butter or coconut manna instead of nut butter

Optional add-ins/enhancements

Extra fat & protein

If you’d like extra protein, feel free to add a sprinkle of hemp seeds (for extra protein and healthy fat), or you can also double up on the protein powder if it doesn’t change the taste too much.

Extra fiber

Adding a tablespoon of a fiber-rich functional food such as chia seeds, ground flax seeds, or psyllium husks can be helpful for further buffering blood sugar, supporting healthy digestion by adding extra roughage, or for increasing satiety (fullness).

Probiotics for iron absorption

A dollop or two of probiotic-rich, no-calcium-added plant-based yogurt, such as Culina, can go a long way to support digestion and enhance iron absorption!

Hormonal harmony

A tablespoon of maca root powder is great for supporting healthier hormone balance! (5)

Blood sugar balance

If you’re prone to high blood sugar, and you’d like to enjoy this sweet, tart, chocolatey iron-rich smoothie with less potential for blood sugar spike, 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of nopal cactus powder may help to keep your blood sugar levels at bay. (6)

Materials

Smoothies are inherently simple to make. You’ll only need a few materials:

How to make it

Step 1

Measure the ingredients.

Step 2

Blend everything together for a minute or two at high speed.

Step 3

Pour into a tall glass or on-the-go smoothie container and enjoy! (Makes one serving.)

How to prepare ahead of time

  1. Pre-portion all the solid ingredients (cherries, cacao, leafy greens, dates, protein powder) into a single-serving airtight container or Ziploc baggie. 
  2. Store in the freezer until ready to blend.
  3. Combine with liquid ingredients (nut butter, milk sub, maple/honey if applicable) when ready to drink.
  4. Blend it up and enjoy!

How to store it

Full transparency: smoothies are generally the most tasty and enjoyable when you drink them after they were freshly made.  

Either way, here are a few easy tips on how you can go about making/storing this in advance:

  1. You can pre-measure a bunch of single-serving batches of all the dry ingredients in advance, as mentioned above. (This would be the best option, in my opinion.)
  2. Technically you can store smoothies in an airtight container (such as a mason jar) in the fridge for up to 24-48 hours, but you still may want to re-blend it before you drink it!
  3. If you’d like to freeze your smoothie to save for a rainy day, it can last in the freezer for up to ~1 month in a plastic (not glass) airtight container.  But you’ll still need to defrost and re-blend it before you drink it!

Iron-rich smoothie: FAQ’s

What’s the difference between raw cacao vs. cocoa powder?

While cacao and cocoa powder technically come from the same plant (Theobroma cacao), cocoa powder is a more processed version of cacao. 

Cocoa powder (the stuff most often used in mainstream chocolate-containing products) doesn’t contain nearly as much iron as cacao powder, so if your goal is to boost iron and antioxidants, you’re better off sticking with cacao.  

Either way, cocoa powder does still contain some antioxidants, potassium, and nutritional benefits!

Can I use regular milk?

If you’re just looking to make a nutrient-dense chocolate protein smoothie, you can totally use regular milk!

But if you’re hoping to get a boost of iron from the cacao, I’d advise you not to use regular milk because of the calcium which we know blocks iron absorption.

Can I sub cacao for carob?

Generally, from a culinary standpoint, carob powder (a different plant than cacao) can make a great sub for cacao in this smoothie; however, keep in mind carob is not nearly as rich in iron as cacao!  

  • You can still get some iron from the leafy greens, but this is just something to keep in mind if your goal is to boost iron levels via this smoothie.

Where can I find camu camu powder?

Online

You can purchase organic camu camu powder online from any of the following sources:

Locally

Camu camu powder is also available in the “superfood” or health food section of most local health food stores such as:

  • Whole Foods
  • Sprouts
  • Hannaford
  • Natural Grocer
  • A local natural food store near you
  • You may also find camu camu in the health food aisle of some mainstream supermarkets.

Serving suggestions

Whether you enjoy this iron-rich smoothie as a breakfast, snack, post-workout shake, or a healthy after-dinner sweet treat, you can’t go wrong!

Other recipes and articles you’ll love

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Iron-Rich Cherry Cacao Smoothie

Iron-Rich Cherry Cacao Smoothie

The sweet, tangy tartness of cherries and the vitamin C-boosting camu camu powder make a great dynamic do to perfectly complement and enhance the deep, bitter, chocolatey flavors of iron-rich cacao in this iron-boosting smoothie!
Prep Time 5 mins
Total Time 10 mins
Servings 1 person
Calories 475 kcal

Equipment

  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Blender or Vitamix or Nutribullet
  • Glass or cup for serving

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 cup frozen cherries (pre-pitted)
  • 3/4 cup milk substitute of choice (unsweetened, no added calcium)
  • 1/4 cup leafy greens of choice fresh or frozen
  • 2 TBSP cacao powder
  • 1 scoop collagen peptides or protein powder of choice
  • 2 Medjool dates (pitted)
  • 1 TBSP cashew butter or nut/seed butter of choice
  • 1/4 teaspoon camu camu powder (for vitamin C)

Instructions
 

  • Measure out the ingredents, and make sure the cherries and dates don't contain any pits!
  • Blend all the ingredients together at high speed for a few minutes.
  • Pour into a large glass/cup and enjoy!

Notes

1/4 teaspoon of camu camu powder provides the majority of the vitamin C in this recipe (190 of 200 mg).
Don't skip the camu camu, if you're hoping to optimize the iron boosting benefits of your smoothie!

Nutrition

Serving: 12oz.Calories: 475kcalCarbohydrates: 50gProtein: 15gFat: 9.5gFiber: 5.6gVitamin C: 200mgIron: 3.75mg
Keyword cacao smoothie, cherry cacao smoothie, iron boosting smoothie, iron rich smoothie
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