Top 20 Vitamin C Foods that Can Boost Immunity and Fight Disease
There are few vitamins that boast as many health benefits as vitamin C. Doubling as both an essential nutrient and powerful antioxidant, vitamin C can have a huge impact on your health from the inside out — quite literally. In fact, vitamin C works to improve everything from skin health to immune function and just about everything in between. By incorporating just a few servings of vitamin C foods in your diet, it’s simple to take advantage of all the health benefits that this water-soluble vitamin has to offer.
So how much vitamin C do you need per day, and how can you maximize your intake to reap the rewards? Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Vitamin C?
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant and plays a role in maintaining the health of the body’s connective tissue. Vitamin C can also help protect the health of your heart, repair and restore tissues and boost the absorption of other nutrients in the body.
Found primarily in fruits and vegetables, vitamin C is abundant throughout the diet. A deficiency in this important vitamin can wreak havoc on health, causing symptoms like easy bruising, bleeding gums, fatigue weakened immunity and, in severe cases, scurvy.
Because your body doesn’t store vitamin C or make it on its own, it’s absolutely vital to include plenty of vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables your daily diet. The benefits of vitamin C may include enhanced iron absorption, better immune function, plus a reduced risk of conditions like gout and heart disease.
Top 20 Vitamin C Foods
The best way to meet your vitamin C needs is by incorporating a few foods rich in vitamin C into your diet. So what foods have vitamin C? Here are a few of the top vitamin C superfoods to start stocking up on, according to the USDA national nutrient database, many of which are low in calories but full of nutrients beyond just vitamin C:
- Black Currant — 1 cup: 203 milligrams (338 percent DV)
- Red Pepper — 1 cup: 190 milligrams (317 percent DV)
- Kiwifruit — 1 cup: 164 milligrams (273 percent DV)
- Guava — 1 fruit: 126 milligrams (209 percent DV)
- Green Bell Pepper — 1 cup: 120 milligrams (200 percent DV)
- Orange — 1 large: 98 milligrams (163 percent DV)
- Strawberries — 1 cup: 89 milligrams (149 percent DV)
- Papaya — 1 cup: 87 milligrams (144 percent DV)
- Broccoli — 1 cup, raw: 81 milligrams (135 percent DV)
- Kale — 1 cup, raw: 80 milligrams (134 percent DV)
- Parsley — 1 cup: 80 milligrams (133 percent DV)
- Pineapple — 1 cup: 79 milligrams (131 percent DV)
- Brussels Sprouts — 1/2 cup, cooked: 48 milligrams (81 percent DV)
- Cauliflower — 1 cup, raw: 46 milligrams (77 percent DV)
- Mango — 1 cup: 46 milligrams (76 percent DV)
- Lemon — 1 fruit: 45 milligrams (74 percent DV)
- Grapefruit — 1/2 fruit: 38 milligrams (64 percent DV)
- Honeydew — 1 cup: 32 milligrams (53 percent DV)
- Peas — 1 cup, cooked: 23 milligrams (38 percent DV)
- Tomatoes — 1 cup, raw: 23 milligrams (38 percent DV)
- Promotes Healthy Skin and Collagen Formation
- Improves Iron Absorption
- Reduces Risk of Gout
- Fights Free Radical Damage
- Boosts Immune Function
- Enhances Cancer Treatment
- Supports Heart Health
1. Promote Healthy Skin and Collagen Formation
Including plenty of vitamin C foods in your diet can help keep your skin glowing, healthy and young. In fact, a major study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the diets of over 4,000 women and found that consuming more high vitamin C foods was associated with a lower risk of skin wrinkles and dryness. There is also some evidence that using a topical vitamin C serum could decrease the amount of skin redness following UVB exposure and may decrease sunburn cell formation by up to 60 percent.
Part of the reason vitamin C foods for skin health can be so beneficial is because vitamin C is used to form collagen, an important protein used to form the skin, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. Collagen is especially important to skin health and can aid in both wound healing and scar tissue formation. One study from the University of Kiel in Germany even found that collagen could help improve skin elasticity and moisture, making it absolutely essential to fit plenty of vitamin C foods into your diet.
2. Improve Iron Absorption
Iron is a mineral that is vital to many aspects of health. Most importantly, iron is a major component of the hemoglobin found in your red blood cells and can help supply the cells throughout your body with oxygen. A deficiency in this key mineral can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, a condition characterized by anemia symptoms like weakness, shortness of breath and dizziness.
Consuming vitamin C foods alongside iron can give iron absorption a serious boost to help prevent iron deficiency. In fact, one study actually found that taking 100 milligrams of vitamin C with a meal increased iron absorption by a whopping 67 percent.
3. Reduce Risk of Gout
Gout is a painful form of arthritis that can cause severe redness and tenderness in the joints, especially in the big toe. Although anti-inflammatory medications are often used to relieve symptoms during flare-ups, it’s typically recommended to make long-term diet and lifestyle changes to prevent recurrences of this unpleasant condition.
Adding more foods that contain vitamin C into your diet is an easy and effective way to reduce your risk of gout. According to one massive study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a high intake of vitamin C was associated with a significantly lower risk of gout. Not only that, but taking at least 1,500 milligrams of supplemental vitamin C each day cut the risk of gout nearly in half.
4. Fight Free Radical Damage
Vitamin C is one of the primary antioxidants that can protect against damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals as well as toxic chemicals and pollutants like cigarette smoke.
Free radicals can build up inside the body and contribute to the development of health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. These disease-causing molecules are generated over time due to factors like a poor diet, unhealthy lifestyle, and long-term exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins.
5. Boost Immune Function
For many people, reaching for the high vitamin C foods and supplements is almost second nature when you start feeling under the weather. Rich in antioxidants, the immune-boosting benefits of this powerful vitamin have been well-documented in recent years. In fact, one of the hallmark signs of a vitamin C deficiency is a weakened immune system.
One study out of Switzerland actually found that getting enough vitamin C can help reduce symptoms and shorten the duration of respiratory infections, such as the common cold, bronchitis or sinusitis. Plus, it could also improve the outcomes and reduce the incidence of other conditions like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea infections as well.
6. Enhance Cancer Treatment
Vitamin C is jam-packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and has been shown to have powerful anticancer properties in both in vitro studies and animal models. Vitamin C foods like lemons and oranges have also been shown to help block the growth and spread of cancer cells and may also be associated with a lower risk of cancer development.
Not only that, but vitamin C may also have some benefits when used alongside traditional cancer treatments as well. According to one large review of 76 studies, administering vitamin C intravenously could improve time to relapse, reduce tumor size, enhance quality of life and decrease symptoms associated with chemotherapy, such as nausea, depression and fatigue.
7. Support Heart Health
Ranking as the leading cause of death, it’s estimated that heart disease accounts for nearly 32 percent of deaths around the world. Switching up your diet and lifestyle is one of the most effective ways to ward off heart disease, and some research even shows that including just a few servings per day of vitamin C rich foods could help reduce several heart disease risk factors to promote heart health.
One large study out of Finland concluded that people who took at least 700 milligrams of vitamin C daily had a 25 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than people who did not take supplemental vitamin C. Similarly, another study showed that taking just 500 milligrams of vitamin C daily significantly reduced both triglycerides and levels of bad LDL cholesterol, two major contributors to heart disease.
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Vitamin C Deficiency
There are several different signs and symptoms of vitamin C deficiency, and maintaining low levels of vitamin C long-term can have detrimental effects on health. In fact, a severe vitamin C deficiency can result in scurvy, a disease resulting from the breakdown of collagen that causes symptoms like bruising, bleeding gums and fatigue.
- Easy bruising
- Swollen gums
- Bleeding gums
- Slow wound healing
- Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
- Dry and splitting hair
- Dry red spots on the skin
- Rough, dry, scaly skin
- Weakened immune system
- Digestive disorders like leaky gut
- Possible weight gain because of slowed metabolism
- Swollen and painful joints
Health problems related to a vitamin C deficiency can get much worse over time and may lead to some serious health issues. Long-term problems from low levels of vitamin C include:
- High blood pressure
- Gallbladder disease
- Certain cancers
So how much vitamin C do you actually need to optimize your health? Your vitamin C requirements vary based on a number of different factors, including age and gender. Vitamin C needs also increase for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as well as those who smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is as follows:
- 0–6 months: 40 mg/day
- 7–12 months: 50 mg/day
- 1–3 years: 15 mg/day
- 4–8 years: 25 mg/day
- 9–13 years: 45 mg/day
- Girls 14–18 years: 65 mg/day
- Pregnant teens: 80 mg/day
- Breastfeeding teens: 115 mg/day
- Boys 14–18 years: 75 mg/day
- Men age 19 and older: 90 mg/day
- Women age 19 years and older: 75 mg/day
- Pregnant women: 85 mg/day
- Breastfeeding women: 120 mg/day
Additionally, smokers or those who are exposed to secondhand smoke should increase their daily amount of vitamin C by 35 mg/day to help meet their vitamin C needs.
Although the dosage of vitamin C supplements can widely vary, most supplements generally have a serving size of about 1,000 milligrams per capsule. It’s also present in many multivitamins as well, with doses ranging from 50–100 milligrams. There seems to be no evidence that high levels of vitamin C in supplement form have adverse effects, even at 2,000 milligrams per day, other than a slightly elevated risk of kidney stones.
Uses in Ayurveda and TCM
Vitamin C rich foods have long been recognized for their powerful health-promoting properties. In fact, these super nutritious fruits and vegetables are often considered a staple in many forms of holistic medicine, including Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for instance, lemons are thought to help clear out toxins, cleanse the body and remove stagnation, while strawberries, on the other hand, quench thirst and clear the throat.
Meanwhile, the Ayurvedic diet promotes eating a good variety of seasonal fruits and veggies to help maximize the nutritional quality of your diet. It’s generally recommended to enjoy vitamin C-rich fruits separately from heavier foods and to always opt for fresh fruits rather than fruit juice whenever possible to optimize your diet and your health.
Vitamin C Foods vs. Supplements
So should you head to the grocery store or the pharmacy to start upping your vitamin C intake? There are several differences that need to be considered between supplements and food sources of this essential vitamin.
In terms of bioavailability, both seem to be roughly equivalent. According to one review published in the journal Nutrients, while some animal studies have shown a difference in the bioavailability of vitamin C foods vs. supplements, human studies have generally found that both are equally absorbed. (17)
However, several studies have found some adverse effects associated with vitamin C supplements but not food sources. For example, one study showed that vitamin C supplementation was associated with a significantly higher risk of kidney stones in men. (18)
Additionally, vitamin C foods are also typically rich in a wide array of other important nutrients, including fiber and antioxidants, as well as other vitamins and minerals. Therefore, it’s best to select natural sources of vitamin C instead of supplemental sources whenever possible to help meet your needs. Not only does this allow you to take advantage of the unique benefits that vitamin C has to offer, but it can also round out your diet with a host of other micronutrients that are essential to health.
How Cooking Affects Vitamin C Content
Getting more vitamin C in your diet can be as simple as including a few extra servings of foods that have vitamin C in your meals each day. By switching up your menu to include more vitamin C rich fruits and veggies, it can be easy (and delicious) to meet your daily needs. Try adding a side salad full of vitamin C vegetables to one meal per day, or swap your sweet snacks for a fresh fruit salad instead.
Keep in mind, however, that it’s best to consume foods high in vitamin C raw instead of cooked whenever possible. Research shows that cooking methods like boiling, simmering, sautéing, stir-frying and poaching can cause significant nutrient losses in foods with vitamin C. For example, one study showed that stir-frying broccoli slashed vitamin C content by 38 percent. (19)
Looking for a few creative ways to spice up your meals and amp up your vitamin C intake? Here are a few recipes using some of the foods highest in vitamin C to help you meet your daily needs:
- Strawberry Kiwi Smoothie
- Honeydew Sorbet
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Apples & Pecans
- Buffalo Cauliflower Salad with Avocado Ranch
- Kale Chips
Around the 18th century, scurvy became a serious problem faced by the British navy. This condition is caused by a severe deficiency in vitamin C and can cause issues like bleeding gums, bruising and even death. In fact, at one point, scurvy was even considered the leading cause of death among British sailors. (20)
In 1747, James Lind began conducting experiments aboard a British naval ship and is credited with the discovery that lemons could aid in the treatment of scurvy, thanks to their vitamin C content. In the years that followed, foods with vitamin C, such as lemons and limes, became staple ingredients for sailors during long sea voyages to help ward off scurvy.
Today, vitamin C deficiency is much more rare. With researchers continuing to unearth a long list of potential vitamin C benefits, there’s a growing emphasis on consuming more vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Risks and Side Effects
Vitamin C is not stored in the body and excess amounts are excreted, so overdosing on this water-soluble vitamin is not generally a concern. However, it is still important not to exceed the safe upper limit of 2,000 milligrams a day to avoid adverse symptoms and vitamin C side effects, such as stomach upset and diarrhea.
A recent study also found a link between taking vitamin C supplements and kidney stones in men, reporting that taking supplementation resulted in a significantly higher risk of kidney stones. If you have a history of kidney stones, you should consider consulting with your doctor before starting supplementation, or simply try increasing your intake of vitamin C foods and drinks to meet your daily needs instead.
Vitamin C supplements may also interact with certain types of medications. In particular, it may interact with estrogen, protease inhibitors, certain anticoagulants, niacin and aluminum-containing medications like phosphate binders. (21) If you’re currently taking any of these medications, talk to your doctor before starting supplementation.
Related: How Much Is Too Much Vitamin C? (Symptoms, Causes & Treatment)
- What does vitamin C do? Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant and plays a role in many aspects of health, ranging from skin health to immune function.
- Promising research suggests that increasing your intake of vitamin C could help promote collagen formation, improve iron absorption, enhance cancer treatment, boost immunity, and decrease the risk of conditions like gout and heart disease.
- What foods are high in vitamin C? Although it can be found in a number of healthy foods, the highest vitamin C foods are generally fruits and vegetables, such as red peppers, kiwis, guavas and black currants.
- While supplementation is available, including a good variety of foods with vitamin C can help you easily meet your daily needs.
- Opt for raw instead of cooked when possible to maximize the vitamin C content of your favorite foods.