Copper is an essential trace element. Its involvement in energy metabolism is particularly significant. Copper acts as a catalyst for several enzymes that play a key role in converting nutrients into energy. It contributes significantly to the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which serves as the body's main source of energy.

Another important area where copper exerts its effects is in the formation of connective tissue. Copper is involved in the production of collagen, a structural protein that ensures the strength and elasticity of skin, bones, tendons, and blood vessels.

Copper supports the absorption of iron from food and converts it into a form that the body can utilize. In particular, copper is essential for the formation of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that enables oxygen transport in the body.

The trace element is also closely linked to immune function. It supports the activity of immune cells and enzymes involved in fighting pathogens. Copper helps maintain the effectiveness of the immune system and strengthen the body's defense mechanisms.

The nervous system also benefits from copper. It is involved in the formation and function of neurons, the building blocks of the nervous system. It plays an important role in myelination, the process of forming a protective sheath around nerve fibers, and contributes to the smooth transmission of nerve impulses.

In addition to these fundamental functions, copper also exhibits antioxidant effects. It is a component of antioxidant enzymes that neutralize harmful free radicals and reduce oxidative stress. This protective mechanism prevents cellular damage.

You can refer to the above copper-rich food table to find vegan foods that provide a high content of this trace element.

Who Has A Higher Copper Requirement?

A balanced diet is usually sufficient to meet the need for copper. However, here are some groups that may tend to have an increased copper requirement:

  • During pregnancy, copper needs increase as copper is important for the development of fetal tissue and the circulatory system.
  • Breastfeeding women also require more copper to meet the baby's needs.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease can affect copper absorption.
  • Genetic disorders such as Wilson's disease or Menkes syndrome are associated with disrupted copper regulation in the body. In such cases, targeted copper treatment may be necessary.
  • In older people, copper intake and absorption may be impaired.
  • Intense physical activity can increase the requirement for copper, as copper plays a role in energy production and post-workout recovery. The increased demand may also be due to enhanced oxygen transport and tissue repair. Athletes may potentially benefit from copper-rich foods.

Copper deficiency can manifest with symptoms such as anemia, fatigue, weakness, skin changes, weakened immune function, and neurological problems. Excessive intake of copper, like with other trace elements, can lead to toxicity.

Vegan Foods High In Copper - Sources

There are numerous vegan foods that are naturally rich in copper and therefore a good option for a vegan diet:

  • Legumes are excellent sources of copper. Lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and red beans are high in manganese. They are also rich in fiber and plant-based protein. Soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame can also be incorporated into your diet as copper-rich foods.
  • Examples of copper-rich nuts and seeds according to the table include cashews, pistachios, sunflower seeds, almonds, pine nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds.
  • Whole grains and grain products such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, oats, millet, wheat germ, brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, bulgur, buckwheat, and barley also provide a good amount of copper according to the table. Here is the copper table with grain products.
  • Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contains a significant amount of copper. Keep in mind that it is also high in fat and calories.
  • Green leafy vegetables like spinach, dandelion greens, kale, Swiss chard, and arugula not only offer a wealth of vitamins and minerals but also moderate amounts of copper. You can find the table with copper content in vegetables here.
  • Fruits are not a rich source of copper. Small amounts can be found in avocados, blackberries, kiwis, lychees, mangoes, grapes, persimmons, sour cherries, and blackcurrants. However, dried fruits such as dried apricots, raisins, dried figs, dates, prunes, and dried cranberries can provide a slightly higher amount of copper.
  • Herbs and spices can contribute to your overall copper intake. Larger amounts of copper are found in curry powder, paprika, cumin, basil, oregano, chives, and thyme, among others.

Avoiding Excess Zinc

An balanced ratio of zinc and copper in your diet is crucial as both minerals compete for the same absorption pathways in the intestine. High zinc consumption can impair copper absorption and lead to an imbalance between the two minerals. The recommended ratio of zinc to copper is about 10:1. This means that for every milligram of zinc you intake, approximately 0.1 mg of copper is recommended. (⇒ zinc-rich foods and ⇒ low-zinc foods)

An excess of zinc can also lead to copper deficiency. This is particularly relevant for those who take supplements containing high levels of zinc without considering sufficient copper intake. If you're taking supplements that contain both zinc and copper, check the ratio between the two minerals.

Eating Proteins And Carbohydrates Together With Copper-rich Foods

Proteins and soluble carbohydrates can improve copper absorption and availability (source). Proteins form complex compounds with copper in the digestive tract, increasing the solubility of the trace element and facilitating its absorption. Specifically, certain amino acids such as histidine and cysteine have been identified as beneficial for the formation of copper complexes. Additionally, it is mentioned that soluble carbohydrates can facilitate copper absorption by increasing the permeability of intestinal cells to copper. This results in improved trace element absorption.

Simultaneous intake of proteins and soluble carbohydrates with copper-rich foods has the greatest effect on copper absorption. Therefore, by consuming protein-rich foods along with carbohydrate-rich foods, you can maximize the bioavailability of copper.

Preparing Copper-rich Foods With Copper Cookware

Cooking with copper cookware can increase the copper uptake of meals. Copper can leach into the food in small amounts from the cookware since it is a reactive metal that can transfer into the food in very small quantities. This is particularly true when acidic or salty ingredients are used. However, note that the copper content in foods cooked in copper cookware does not increase dramatically.

Copper-rich Diet

The following list provides you with recipe examples that can help you incorporate copper into a vegan diet:

  • Oatmeal with almond milk, banana, and chopped walnuts
  • Quinoa salad with avocado, black beans, and cilantro
  • Lentil soup with carrots, celery, and turmeric
  • Tofu scramble with spinach, bell peppers, and onions
  • Vegetable curry with coconut milk and basmati rice
  • Grilled vegetable sandwich with hummus and arugula
  • Quinoa bowl with sautéed tempeh, broccoli, and tahini dressing
  • Green smoothie with kale, banana, and flaxseeds
  • Mushroom risotto with fresh herbs and pine nuts
  • Vegetable soup with potatoes, carrots, and parsley
  • Vegan Buddha Bowl with grilled tofu, quinoa, and colorful vegetables
  • Spinach salad with roasted pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and balsamic dressing
  • Vegan chocolate banana muffins with oats and walnuts
  • Fruity chia seed pudding with berries and chopped almonds