A Guide to Vegan Sources of Zinc
Zinc is an unsung hero of the human body.
Without getting much recognition from nutritionists and the food marketing world, zinc plays a vital role in keeping our bodies healthy. Responsible for healing wounds, our perceptions of taste and smell, the creation of protein and DNA, and effectively treating the common cold, zinc is one of the great multi-taskers, so it’s essential to consume enough to keep all these functions running seamlessly.
Our bodies don’t readily store zinc, so we need to consume some every day. The recommended daily allowance for most adults is 8mg per day, but that jumps to 11mg for pregnant women, and 12mg for nursing moms.
Vegans and vegetarians should consume the baseline 8mg at a minimum but are better off aiming for 12mg per day, as zinc from plant sources is not as easily absorbed as that from animal products.
Many plant-based foods pack in a punch of zinc in each serving, including many legumes, nuts, and seeds. Below, we’ve provided a food-by-food guide to help you include the most zinc-rich plant foods into your diet.
Top Vegan Zinc Sources
2.7mg per ¼ cup
Yes, those little seeds on your bagels and burger buns are one of the top plant sources of zinc, and their applications go way beyond bread topping. A quarter-cup serving of these little seeds provides 2.7mg of zinc.
Sesame seeds make a great addition to stir-fries and salads, but with a little extra effort, you can make these seeds a luxurious, as well as nutritious, addition to your diet.
Use toasted sesame seeds to make tahini, a delicious Middle Eastern sesame paste. This paste can be used to create a variety of healthy sauces and salad dressings, and can also be turned into the sumptuous Middle Eastern sweet halvah, which is like a sweet sesame seed fudge, which can be made in plain flavors all the way to fun additions like cinnamon and chocolate.
Sesame seeds are one of the oldest condiments in human history and are very susceptible to rancidity, so be sure to buy small quantities often, and store your seeds in the freezer for maximum shelf life.
2.7mg per 1 cup
Chickpeas are one of the superheroes of the plant-based diet. Lending protein and fiber to dishes like salads, curries, and hummus, chickpeas are also among the best sources of zinc. A cup of cooked beans provides 2.5mg of zinc or about a quarter of your daily intake of the mineral.
One of my favorite uses for chickpeas is in chana masala, an Indian curry of chickpeas in a spiced tomato sauce. In addition to being freaking delicious when served with rice or naan bread, this dish is also a nutritional powerhouse, with the vitamin C from the tomatoes helping absorb all that iron, and providing plenty of protein and fiber.
For an easy chana masala recipe, try one of my all-time favorite recipes from Vegan Richa.
Chickpeas also make great zinc-rich snacks - try roasting a can of chickpeas in the oven with sweet or savory spices for a crunchy, poppable snack you can feel good about - and that goes perfectly with your favorite movie.
2.5mg per ¼ cup
I only discovered pumpkin seeds relatively late in life, but I think I’ve more than made up for lost time. In addition to lots of iron and an insane amount of heart-healthy protein per serving, a ¼ cup portion of pumpkin seeds provides 2.5mg of zinc.
You have a few options when it comes to pumpkin seeds. Because the shells are tender, you can roast them with a little salt as you might after carving your Halloween Jack-o’-Lantern. You can also purchase roasted and salted pumpkin seeds at most convenience stores or online.
These make great on-the-go snacks for eating on long car trips, or at your desk when you get a little hungry between meals.
Alternatively, Pepitas are shelled pumpkin seeds and are the smaller, delicate innards of the pumpkin seed once the white shell has been discarded. These are fantastic raw or roasted, and are perfectly suited to a salad topping thanks to their delicate crunch and slightly nutty flavor.
2.3mg per ¼ cup
I liken cashews to the velvet of the food world - a truly luxurious nut, cashews are delicious on their own, but are elevated when stir-fried alongside nutritious vegetables, added to curries and salads, and blended down into a smooth, creamy vegan sour cream (view recipe).
In addition to luxury and healthy fats, cashews also provide 2.3mg of healthy zinc per quarter-cup serving. Roasting the nuts helps you squeeze every last bit of zinc out of each cashew - you can buy them pre-roasted and salted if you’re pressed for time, but if you can roast your own from raw cashews, you can control the fat and sodium content.
Try dry-roasting your cashews in a cast iron pan, moving them around frequently to prevent burning, until they are golden brown and fragrant. Eat immediately or store in the freezer to prevent the oils from going rancid.
2.0mg per ¾ cup
Pronounced keen-wah, this Bolivian food has quickly made its way to the top of basically every superfood list in North America - and with good reason. Actually, the seed of a type of grass as opposed to grain, quinoa is 100% gluten-free, and delivers a hefty dose of protein, fiber, and other vitamins and minerals in addition to zinc.
Also relevant to vegans is that quinoa is, in itself, a complete protein, so you don’t have to worry about combining it with other foods to maximize its nutrition.
To protect itself from being eaten by birds, quinoa grains are covered in a bitter-tasting coating. Many bagged quinoa blends are pre-washed, but it can’t hurt to give your quinoa a good rinse before cooking to prevent a ruined batch of the stuff.
Cook your rinsed quinoa in boiling water until the grains are fluffy and have sprung little white “tails.” You can use quinoa anywhere you would use rice.
1.8mg per 4oz
Is there any vegan “best of” list on which tofu doesn’t appear? Tofu is perhaps the most infamous food of the plant-based world, and with good reason - in addition to providing a hearty helping of protein and calcium, tofu is also a great vegan source of zinc, delivery 1.8mg of zinc in each 4-ounce serving.
You really have a lot of options when it comes to how to serve your tofu. For savory applications like stir-fries, salads, and as the center protein of your meal, choose firm or extra-firm varieties, and press the water out using a tofu press. This will ensure a dense, chewy end product that easily soaks up the flavors from sauces and marinades.
For sweets and dessert applications, soft and silken tofu will be the type to fill your basket with at the grocery store. Easily blending down into a smooth puree, soft and silken tofus provide a creamy base for smoothies, as well as pie and cheesecake fillings.
By using tofu as the base for your desserts, you can get plenty of nutrition out of your sweets.
While we’d all love to base our diets completely around nutritious, whole, plant-based foods, sometimes that just isn’t possible. Fortified foods, those that have added nutrients that would not occur naturally, are a convenient way to reach your nutritional goals when you’re pressed for time, or when you don’t have full access to your kitchen, like camping, traveling, or simply getting to your next event.
Fortified breakfast cereals are a great source of zinc, and provide about 3.8mg per ¾-cup serving. For the best nutritional bang for your buck, choose a cereal that provides a hefty helping of vitamin D and iron, in addition to zinc - this way, you get the equivalent of a one-stop nutrition shop, and don’t have to worry about getting your vitamins and minerals from a ton of different foods.
To make sure you’re absorbing every bit of the nutrition from your fortified cereals, add a few sliced ripe strawberries to your bowl, or chase it down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Vitamin C will help you better absorb the cereal’s iron, which, combined with the zinc, will help keep you sniffle-free throughout the winter months.
Getting Zinc from Plant-based Foods
An impressive multi-tasker within the human body, zinc is an essential nutrient, despite its lack of limelight from food marketers and experts. When you’re eating a plant-based diet, aim for anywhere from 8-18mg of zinc per day to make sure you’re absorbing enough of this mineral to keep your body functioning well and keeping yourself in tip-top condition.
With such a variety of plant-based foods, ranging from legumes to nuts and seeds to protein-rich foods like tofu, it’s easy to reach your recommended daily amount of zinc without having to rely on animal-based products.
For optimum nutrition, try mixing and matching these zinc-rich foods into your meals - for example, topping a salad with tofu and pepitas, or stirring a tablespoon or two of tahini into your morning oatmeal.
Getting creative with your food combinations will not only ensure you’re getting enough zinc but will also provide your body with all the essential nutrients that come from a varied, whole-food based vegan diet.