Like a boat carrying supplies to shore, iron is an important mineral whose main purpose is to deliver oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body. But it isn’t always easy to absorb iron in the body — especially if the iron comes from plant foods, says Ella Davar, RD, a holistic dietitian based in New York.
Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Heme is found only in animal flesh like meat, poultry and seafood, while non-heme is found in plant foods, like whole grains, nuts, seeds legumes and leafy greens,” Davar explains. “Heme iron is better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, but vitamin C can improve the absorption of non-heme iron.”
Because of this, vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be deficient in iron, but iron deficiencies are also common among young children, pregnant people and folks of childbearing age, per an August 2015 review in the Lancet.
During pregnancy, people need almost double the amount of iron to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby. When you don’t have iron in your nutrient stores, or don’t get enough of it throughout your pregnancy, you may develop a deficiency, per the Mayo Clinic.
People with certain chronic diseases, including anemia, kidney disease, chronic heart failure, cancer and inflammatory bowel disease are also more likely to have iron deficiency.
Can Cooking With Iron Fish Help You Get More Iron?
Globally, about 1.2 billion people have iron deficiency anemia, per a January 2019 report in Blood. It makes sense that people are looking for ways to increase their iron levels, and tools like Lucky Iron Fish claim to help improve iron levels by infusing foods with the mineral.
Lucky Iron Fish is made with FDA-certified, food-grade electrolytic iron powder. It releases iron particles into boiling water, which makes it easier for your body to absorb.
- Boil about 4 cups of liquid (like water or broth) in a large pot.
- Then, add two to three drops of citrus or an acidic ingredient along with the Lucky Iron Fish. (The acid helps the mixture achieve a certain pH level to help release the iron.)
- Allow this mixture to boil for about 10 minutes before removing the Lucky Iron Fish.
The Lucky Iron Fish liquid in the pot is what you’ll use for your cooking. You can use the Lucky Iron Fish water to prepare a variety of dishes, such as soups, stews, smoothies, rice, pasta and hummus.
Lucky Iron Fish claims that it releases microscopic iron particles into the liquid — about 6 to 8 milligrams. To put this into perspective, the NIH recommends adults get 8 to 18 milligrams of iron daily.
Do Iron Fish Really Work?
As for the science behind these nifty tools? “Some reviewed studies suggest that, with reasonable compliance, cast-iron pots and iron ingots could be used to reduce iron deficiency anemia, especially among children,” Davar says.
“However, other studies have shown that the iron content and availability of food prepared with iron cookware depends on cooking conditions, including the type of food prepared.”
The amount of iron released from iron-based cooking pots and tools increases with the acidic pH and/or the presence of acid, which is why Lucky Iron Fish advises adding some citrus or vinegar to the boiling water before each use, Davar says.
“Due to the fact that vitamin C improves the absorption of non-heme iron, it makes sense that these claims are being made,” Davar says.
An August 2017 study in Nutrients tested the efficacy of Lucky Iron Fish and found that while it released a substantial amount of iron with a pH level of 2, it was only slightly soluble at a pH of 7. The vitamin C that was added to the liquid helped maintain the solubility of the iron and its uptake. But the study also found that foods with tannic acid (coffee and tea, for example) can inhibit the absorption of iron by 7.5-fold.
While tools like Lucky Iron Fish may help increase iron levels, studies show that it doesn’t necessarily help resolve issues related to anemia.
A June 2017 controlled trial in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition tested the efficacy of Lucky Iron Fish in 327 people with moderate anemia and compared it with the effectiveness of iron pills. There was no significant difference in hemoglobin levels between those who used the Lucky Iron Fish versus those who took iron supplements after 6 or 12 months of use.
Note that anemia is a condition caused by the lack of healthy red blood cells to supply oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency anemia is one type of anemia, but anemia can also be caused by vitamin deficiencies and inflammation from certain diseases, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What Are the Drawbacks of Using Iron Fish?
Lucky Iron Fish might seem like a panacea for aiding iron deficiencies, but there are some downsides to using it.
In addition to not resolving — and potentially masking — health issues related to deficiencies, it may also alter the taste of your food, Davar says.
“Using Lucky Iron Fish may enhance the flavor so much that it gives a metal taste to some individuals with a sensitive palate,” Davar says.
Iron toxicity is also a possibility with using ingots like Lucky Iron Fish. “If you have a history of iron overload (hemochromatosis), you should avoid cast-iron cookware, especially with acidic foods,” Davar says. Post-menopausal people should also use it with caution, as monthly menstrual periods often mask hemochromatosis until a person enters menopause, Davar says.
In these cases, stainless steel cookware is a safe cooking option.
So Should You Use Iron Ingots?
The bottom line is that while it’s generally safe to use tools like Lucky Iron Fish to help increase your iron levels, it probably won’t solve any pre-existing issues you have that may be causing your deficiency.
For this reason, it’s best to talk to your doctor to help you identify the root causes and work with a registered dietitian to come up with a diet plan that caters to your specific nutritional needs.