The effect of ascorbic acid on iron retention from a diet with predicted low iron bioavailability (containing minimal meat and ascorbic acid) was investigated in iron-depleted premenopausal women. Eleven women were depleted of storage iron (indicated by serum ferritin) through a combination of diet (5.0 mg Fe/2000 kcal for 67-88 d) and phlebotomy. They then consumed a diet containing 13.7 mg Fe/2000 kcal, supplemented with placebo or ascorbic acid three times daily (1500 mg total) with meals for 5.5 wk. Ascorbic acid improved apparent iron absorption (balance method) [38 +/- 2% (means +/- SEM) vs 27 +/- 2%]. Ascorbic acid also improved hemoglobin, erythrocyte protoporphyrins, and serum iron but not hematocrit, serum ferritin, iron-binding capacity, or transferrin saturation. In iron-depleted women consuming a diet with predicted poor iron availability, ascorbic acid supplementation enhanced body iron retention for 5.5 wk.