What is copper?
Learn all about copper, the nutrient responsible for producing energy and building tissue. Find out how much we need and which foods are good sources
Copper is a trace element and is a component of various enzymes that catalyse many different reactions in the body, including helping to produce red and white blood cells and triggering the release of iron to form haemoglobin (the substance that carries oxygen around the body). It is mainly absorbed in the upper small intestine and, to a lesser degree, in the stomach.
Why do we need copper?
Copper has a vital role in the body and is required to build connective tissue, red blood cells and melanin. It also helps to produce energy, transport iron, maintain neurologic function and prevent oxidative damage. The majority of copper in the body is located in bone, muscle, the liver, kidneys, and brain. About 5 per cent of the body's copper is in the bloodstream, of which up to 95 per cent is bound to a carrier protein, ceruloplasmin.
The health benefits of copper include:
- Helps build connective tissue
- Aids in the formation of red blood cells
- Transports iron around the body
- Maintains neurological function
- May be an antioxidant, preventing oxidative process of various diseases
- The ceruloplasmin protein carries most of the body's copper, resulting in bone health and making melanin
How much copper do we need and what are the effects of consuming too much?
The UK daily recommendation for copper is 1.2mg for healthy adults. You should be able to get this from your daily diet. Copper toxicity is very rare, but it could occur as a result of food or drink contamination or from taking high levels of supplements. If this happens, symptoms such as stomach pain, sickness and diarrhoea could start.
Speak to your doctor or GP if you are concerned about nutritional deficiencies or if you are considering taking supplements.
Which foods are good sources of copper?
Dietary copper is found in a wide variety of foods, including:
- Fish, such as trout, fresh salmon
- Cocoa powder
- Whole grains, such as barley, bulgur wheat, quinoa, brown rice
- Sunflower seeds
Recipes that are rich in copper
Broccoli pasta salad with salmon & sunflower seeds
Moroccan lamb with apricots, almonds & mint
Plum & almond crumble slice
Crab linguine with chilli & parsley
Steamed trout with mint & dill dressing
Trout with creamy potato salad
Port & chicken liver pâté
Lamb's liver & mash
Chorizo & root veg bulgur wheat
Tuna, avocado & quinoa salad
Creamy salmon, prawn & almond curry
More on vitamins and minerals
This content was updated on 20 October 2023.
Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in human nutrition and dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.