Lucky iron fish persuades Cambodian women to cook with iron, stave off anemia

Marilyn sez, "University of Guelph student Christopher Charles worked on a project with scientists in Cambodia three summers ago. They were trying to persuade women in poor villages to put chunks of iron in their cooking pots in order to lower the risk of anemia, but the women weren't interested. Then Charles hit upon the idea of fashioning the iron into the shape of a local fish the villagers considered lucky."

It was an enticing challenge in a country where iron deficiency is so rampant, 60 per cent of women face premature labour, hemorrhaging during childbirth and poor brain development among their babies...

The people they worked with — “the poorest of the poor” — can’t afford red meat or pricey iron pills, and the women won’t switch to iron cooking pots because they find them heavy and costly. Yet a small chunk of iron could release life-saving iron into the water and food. But what shape would the women be willing to place in their cooking pots?

“We knew some random piece of ugly metal wouldn’t work . . . so we had to come up with an attractive idea,” he said. “It became a challenge in social marketing.”

Canadian’s lucky iron fish saves lives in Cambodia (Thanks, Marilyn!)

(Image: Kenneth Ingram)


  1. Brilliant idea! I wonder if any are available for purchase in North America? Plenty of folks here could use an easy and inexpensive way of getting more iron in their diets, especially in places where the sale of iron supplements is restricted by law. (I’m looking at you, Alberta!)

    1. I’m really worried about this…
      Scrap iron is often far from being just iron, it may contain pretty much anything, heavy metals being the most worrying.
      I’m sure this guy checked the fish, but realistically the scrap metal merchant isn’t in a position to ensure that there aren’t truly nasty chemicals in the fish.

      1. Please read the text before you bother to comment on it. 
        This is not in any way like putting random off-the-shelf trinkets into your food. 
        This is about a specific cooking utensil wich has been given a pleasing shape by designers to make it more attractive to consumers.

  2. They’re right! Random useful health discoveries that ought to be shared include:
    1) as an exchange student I was surprised to discover that multivitamin pills are not necessary, not even for the scurvy. Years later I moved back to the US and have been floundering ever since. BUT: a cast iron skillet seriously improves matters. A friend’s German mom said once that her doctor recommended after, like, four babies and some trouble, that she eat apples into which iron nails had been driven and allowed to bide. A cast iron skillet is more ferrous than that. Moreover, a valuable cast iron culture might explain why my Komilitonen could not be persuaded to use wooden or plastic implements on the 1990’s-fashionable Teflon skillets. My dormmates ruined them over and over with metal implements. The benefits of a cast iron base, especially when scratched with a metal fork, would explain this repeat behavior better than schlappschwanzity, otherwise rare in that atmosphere.
    2) carpal tunnel is created/worsened by bending your wrists so the fingers point toward the elbows. (don’t know a better way to describe the crook. writers?)
    3) this is embarrassing, but it’s good! If you’re having back trouble, try moving the toilet paper behind the toilet so you have to twist. Sorry, but it really works.

  3. Addendum: I would never have equated cooking on a cast iron skillet (oil!) with cooking on a teflon skillet (water + air!), except I watched Germans and all their foreign students including me cook on both the same way. Hungry? Pour olive oil on whatever pan is there, fry an onion, then decide what meal you’re interested in. (Including dessert! Check out Turkish cooking shows.) After spending time on this regime: look better than you ever did before in your life. Conclusion: 1980’s fat grams diet = bullshytt.

  4. I like this! It’s an innovation that scales very easily and you can probably find one in the US for less than a fin.

  5. Use cast iron pots and skillets for the same results. It’s good for us all. That said, tomatoes and cast iron don’t mix. Otherwise, cast iron is so much better than non-stick as a heat conveying surface and they’ll last several lifetimes. I’m using a large cast iron skillet that came down to me from the daughter of my great, great, etc, Union civil war grandfather. It’s an heirloom and if it could speak…

  6. Yeah, except for the part where the Cambodian women’s superstitions and ignorance are being manipulated and re-inforced – Even if it is “For Their Own Good”.

      1. Like I haven’t been doing that since I got kicked out of catholic school in the fifth grade. Ecumenical toes were MADE to be stepped on.

    1. What are you on about? They tried it with other visual shapes. The women didn’t like it. This is just marketing. It’s what sells the white iPhone and it’s what makes a luck fish more fun to put in your soup than a round disk of iron. Before you go calling people ignorant because they are poor and foreign maybe you ought to do some self reflection. Lotta ignorance around.

    2. I didn’t read it as the fish being sold as “magic”, just that it was a shape that made it more attractive to those people.  I’d rather put a cutesy fish shape in my pan than a square block of metal.

      1. Yeah, but would you put ANYTHING obviously inedible in a cooking pan, with food in it, unless you were predisposed to think that it might somehow to be beneficial  ?  If Granny told you that it was “Good Luck” to throw an old gym sock in the pot of chilli you were brewing up, would you just go along with her, would you pause to reflect on the traditions and “charming folk beliefs” of an earlier generation, or would you smile and nod while gently but firmly keeping her from getting anywhere near your stove ?

        Your answer, I suspect, depends on how pro-superstition and anti-science you are, or at least on how much you’ve really thought about it.  

    1. No. 

      Boil a box of raisin bran (or any other fortified) breakfast cereal then stick a magnet in the slurry.

  7. Snagglepuss:

    Yes — we need to lecture them in proper beliefs…even if it takes generations and never really sinks in to our satisfaction. 

    It is our burden to educate the simple brown skinned, non-Christian, slant-eyed savages. Golly, I bet they can’t even mind their own children – best put them in missionary run boarding schools lest their ignorant parents raise them…why, little brown kids are so cute and trendy, I bet they’ll be adopted by good Christians in no-time, lickedy-split!

    It might take several anaemia-hobbled generations , but when they do agree to take their iron, they will do it using OUR way of thinking. 

    On the other hand snagglepuss, perhaps it is you who is  ignorant.

    1. There was nothing racist in his comment. And certainly nothing hinting at proselytizing. Quite the opposite even.

      I had the same reaction to this article. It’s a quaint and amusing little story but when you get down to it we have a small group of scientists using 500 years worth of hard won western knowledge to combat a fundamental and culturally-agnostic problem (dead and under-developed babies) which they then have to hide inside an infantile fetish for these noble people to even consider implementing.

      It’s one thing, perhaps even a wise thing given certain historical contexts, to be suspicious of meddling westerners. It’s totally something else to say, “well as long as it’s magic and none of that scary evidence-based science they’re always going on about. I understand magic.”

      Is medicine a “proper belief?” What about proper hygiene and good nutrition?

      We just hit 7 billion people. I see a lot of strenuous effort going on, even here in the west, trying to get ignorant people to come around and see what’s in their own best interests. I have to wonder why sometimes.

    2. There’s something to be said for calling a spade a spade. If we have to wait until we have eradicated ignorance and superstition in the West before we tackle it in Cambodia, lest we be branded hypocrites, it can be a long time and a lot of iron-deprived people before then.

      1. Please reread my comment, and its antecedent – I said the same thing you just said. I’m curious how you could  interpret it otherwise. Wow – just looking my comment, then your reply to it really has me scratching my head. Did you read the comment to which I replied? I really doubt you knew the context when you wrote your reply to my comment.

        How could you possibly think my comment was anything but a tongue-in-cheek reply to another comment?

    3. And perhaps it is you who ‘way jumped to a presumption that I was suggesting indoctrinating the Cambodians into the good ol’ rapacious, greedy, xenogenocidal, just-as-scientifically-incorrect ways of Western christianity – You gentle, unassuming hero, you.

      Look, Lord Jim – I got no complaints about boosting the blood iron levels of people who don’t know that they need ’em. I’m just commenting that it’s sad that it takes a bit of mystical-hogwash trickery to accomplish that, just as it would be sad if your only available method for upticking the Vitamin B levels of Rhode Islanders would be to slip a Jeebus-shaped charm coated with cobalamin into the sacrament.

      Or this, for that matter:

      My, my, CD…So huffy, for such an enlightened mutant.

      1. You were kicked out of a parochial school? Hmm….I like you now Snagglepuss.

        Not that I didn’t like you already.

        I guess I’ll say now I like you more. But please do reread my comment and the original to which I replied.

  8. Here in the southern US, women used to keep a jar of iron nails and water in the kitchen. They’ld drink a glass every morning for the iron. I understand that some people still do the same with, WELL WASHED to get all oil off, steel wool. You can tell that it’s working because the water gets a slight reddish hue.

  9. @Erational
    Is it really that hard to get adequate iron from a western diet? I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years now, and the only time I’ve actually needed iron supplements was while I was pregnant. There are plenty of good sources of iron, other than red meat.

  10. CD: “proper beliefs” like how a lack of iron in their diet causes anemia

    i don’t see how attempting to help native women not bleed to death during childbirth equates to forcing christianity on a population

    1. Would you please read the person to whom I replied, then reread my response. I was not saying that giving native women supplements was imposing Christianity. I was kinda sorta  saying the opposite. Um…LOL.   

      Snagglepuss said that delivering iron supplements to the women in the form of a lucky fish is reinforcing  their ignorance and superstition, which prompted my response. I was speculating in a tongue in cheek way that perhaps he or she thinks that the women getting the iron wasn’t simply enough, but that  they need to abandon their belief system and subscribe to our beliefs in order to receive their iron.  

      Anyway, I’m sure you just read my comment too fast and didn’t really understand what I wrote…we’ve all done this.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      p.s. you might already know this, but you don’t need to scroll back to read the original comment – simply click on where it says “in reply to so-and-s0” and a small popup displaying the original comment will appear.

  11. We could do the same thing here to help sell vaccinations to terrified parents.  Like putting the “American Idol” logo, or a picture of a smiling Oprah, on the vaccine syringe.

    1. They already do this. 

      A cousin’s friend’s mother’s ex-boyfriend saw NASCAR branded diabetes testers and syringes. 

  12. I cook in cast iron all the time. there are 2 menstruating women in my house, so it’s important to keep the iron up. HOWEVER. not everyone needs iron the way poor people do in the tropical/developing world. many people around the world are iron deficient because they have intestinal parasites that cause constant, low level internal bleeding. most of us in the west do not have these parasites and therefore do not bleed regularly (with the exception of women of child-bearing age).

    if you are a man, a post-menopausal woman and/or have a family history of certain types of heart disease, you may not want to add extra iron to your diet. check recommended levels before you decide you need this.

  13. Some people here are forgetting the psychology behind this. Yes, you can tell women “do this it’s good for you” and explain why but people will forget to do it if they don’t have something that sticks in their mind to make them remember. A lucky fish rather than a lump of iron, something from their culture, would do the trick. You see the fish next to the cooking pots, think “oh yeah, this fish is good for me I need to put it in the cooking”, it’s an association that you wouldn’t make with another fish. It’s not pandering to superstition, it’s working within the local culture to get women to remember to do something that will make them and their families healthier.

    Plenty of people in the US could use similar tricks, how many people forget to take medications regularly? Treatment compliance is a big problem in medicine.

  14. Use a familiar and trusted image to deliver nutrition to an unsophisticated populace? So, no different from Flintstones Vitamins, then.

  15. If their beliefs harm them then we should change their beliefs. This applies to any population anywhere.

    1. How exactly do you plan on achieving that goal? Not to mention, how do we know that *your* belief is the ‘correct’ belief? Is the Crusade business back in operation?

    2. And what could harm them more than not entering the pearly gates of heaven!

      We fully agree with you Vincent, and so have shared your proclamation at the Pewlpit, as a lead to this creative health measure.

  16. this is a brilliant idea!  Since the women did not believe them at first, they created something that they will consider lucky.  It does not only promote good health, but saves lives as well.

  17. I don’t quite see how it is some kind of shocking ignorance on their part to prefer to put a happy fish in their cooking pot than an ugly lump of iron.

  18. It’s a nice example of Terry Pratchett/Granny Weatherwax witchcraft.
    A whole lot of prat about ‘invisible animals’ from an outhouse polluting a well won’t get a response.  But tell ’em there’s an evil spirit in the outhouse and it needs to be filled in and moved ‘way over there’ will get the shovels moving.  May save some kids from dysentery too.
    Nice thinking with the fish.

  19. There’s a term for “encoded knowledge that we apply without needing to fully understand all of the details of the science behind it.” It’s called civilization.

    In some years, I’m sure that will run an article, “Five Bizarre Reasons for the Lucky Fish in the Pot!”, and many people will go, “Huh, that explains that!” In the meantime: Healthy babies.

  20. Even though some of you are put off by the ‘superstition,’ the real explanation (the fish is a source of iron, which you’re not getting enough of) is not so very deep that it couldn’t be explained and understood in a sentence or two.
    These women may be poor, or even illiterate, but I bet they’re not so stupid as some seem to think.

  21. Also, I never thought about it being an iron thing but our family used to keep some vinegar with a garlic clove and iron nails in it. Makes good salad dressing, but the nails probably served the same purpose. That’s funny, because I had always regarded it as simple superstition. Some times our stupid ancestors were pretty smart I guess.

  22. The other reason the fish is superior to a ‘lump of iron’ is assurance of quality control.  The people producing the fish can assure their customers the fish are clean iron and a trace of carbon.  Steel (which looks and acts a lot like iron) can be alloyed with other metals like nickel, chromium and cobalt.  Those are metals you probably do not want introduced into your food.  You wouldn’t want the women to use any old bit of leaf spring they pulled off the bottom of a wrecked truck. 

    Also, why with all these comments has no one mentioned, ‘Stone Soup?’

  23. @boingboing-9ca407bdbd66079103cb4ac128614422:disqus
    Heaven forfend that religion be used for a good purpose, that would blow your entire philosophy now wouldn’t it?
    Let us hope they are using cast iron and *not* cast steel. the chemicals they use for release agents for steel are nasty.

  24. @boingboing-56e6a93212e4482d99c84a639d254b67:disqus :  Indeed.  Steel, bad.  Iron, good.  That was kind of my point. These people seem to be well intentioned.  Heck, I’m ready to buy one of these fish myself! I think they look cool.

  25. I always thought there was a difference between metallic iron and ionic iron. The last being good for consumption, the other not so much

    A few years ago here in The Netherlands there was a investigation on tv about Kellogs putting metallic iron in their cereals. when they placed a cornflake on a water surface they could make it float towards an magnet. it was fascinating and scary.

    “The Dutch television show Keuringsdienst van Waarde,[8] in an episode aired on 15 October 2009, followed up one of Kellogg’s Special K nutritional claims, namely the addition of iron. The show provided evidence that the iron was not nutritional ionic iron – as it occurs in natural foods like spinach – but was in fact metallic iron. A Kellogg’s telephone helpdesk employee was not willing to discuss the ingredients of their products in general, claiming it was a company secret, although in the show the company was not confronted with the findings. The nutritional experts in the show (a university professor and a general practitioner) agreed that actual metallic iron should not be part of a diet, speculating that it might damage organs.[9] After the airing, the Dutch food authority nuanced the claims made in the TV program, claiming there are no health risks as long as Kellogg’s stays within the legal limits. They also challenged the claim that the cereal could contain ‘shredded bikes’, and responded that iron powder is suitable for human consumption.[10]”

  26. What is the bioavailability of this iron? I’ve heard cooking acidic foods in cast iron cookware can raise the iron content of the food and impart a ferrous taste. I’ve also heard that iron in this form has virtually no bioavailability. At first glance, this seems like a snake oil merchant trying to profit from the poor with the promise of good health.

  27. Also, tetanus doesn’t develop from rust. This concept is misleading. From Wikipedia:

    “Tetanus is often associated with rust, especially rusty nails, but this concept is somewhat misleading. Objects that accumulate rust are often found outdoors, or in places that harbor anaerobic bacteria, but the rust itself does not cause tetanus nor does it contain more C. tetani bacteria. The rough surface of rusty metal merely provides a prime habitat for a C. tetani endospore to reside, and the nail affords a means to puncture skin and deliver endospore into the wound. An endospore is a non-metabolizing survival structure that begins to metabolize and cause infection once in an adequate environment. Because C. tetani is an anaerobic bacterium, it and its endospores survive well in an environment that lacks oxygen. Hence, stepping on a nail (rusty or not) may result in a tetanus infection, as the low-oxygen (anaerobic) environment is provided by the same object that causes a puncture wound, delivering endospores to a suitable environment for growth.”

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