Can you absorb iron from iron cookware? The short answer is yes. Even more so if you cook iron and vitamin C rich foods in your iron cookware.
A recent review of research studies concluded iron-containing cookware may reduce iron-deficiency anaemia (1). The more acidic the food, and the longer it is cooked for in the iron cookware, the greater the uptake of iron. For example, scrambled eggs can triple their iron content when cooked in an iron pan (2).
Iron is an essential nutrient. It plays a key role within our body by carrying oxygen in our blood and delivering it to our muscles, organs, and cells. Without iron, we simply would not survive.
Getting tired easily, feeling irritable, struggling to concentrate, or lacking energy may all be symptoms of a busy life, or lockdown fatigue, but they are also common symptoms of iron-deficiency. Sadly, low iron is one of the most common micronutrient deficiencies worldwide. In New Zealand, over a third of teenage girls and one in ten women do not meet their iron needs (3).
However, low iron levels can be avoided by increasing our iron intake from food, which comes in two forms:
- Haem iron – is easily absorbed and is only found in animal sources such as meat, chicken, and fish.
- Non-haem iron – is not so easily absorbed, and is found in animal sources as well as plant foods, such as vegetables, beans, and lentils.
There are several foods which, when eaten with iron-rich foods, increase our ability to absorb iron, especially non-haem iron. Equally there are some which can also hinder it.
- Iron promoters – food rich in vitamin C, for example tomatoes, capsicum, citrus, green vegetables, pumpkin, and kiwi fruit.
- Iron inhibitors – tannins (found in tea, coffee, and red wine) and phytates (found in grains and rice).
We can only absorb small amounts of iron at a time, so we need a regular supply in our diets. Because non-haem iron is less easily absorbed by our body, those who eat a predominantly plant-based diet need almost double the amount of iron than those who eat meat on a regular basis. However, this can be easily achieved, especially if you use an iron pan to cook with.
Whilst iron cookware is not the complete answer for achieving our daily iron intake, every little helps. And it doesn’t come with the unwanted side-effects and cost of iron supplementation. In addition, iron pans made from 100% iron will only release iron, even at high heats or when cooking with acidic foods. Other pans that use non-stick technology such as Teflon, may have a different story to tell.
Teflon’s chemical name is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This is the clear plastic coat which gives pans a waxy, non-stick, easy to clean surface. There has long been a debate over the safety of these coatings in cookware. Not only can the coating chip and flake into food, but PTFE releases potentially harmful chemicals when it is heated. Which is exactly what we do with cookware…
Several research studies have found that when cooking at normal temperatures (180 to 260oC), PTFE-coated pans begin to degrade and release gases, presenting potential toxicity (4). Research suggests Teflon pans, when regularly heated to around 260oC (the temperature we sear steak at), should only last around 2.3 years (4). This is drastically reduced if the coating gets scratched or chipped. These pans and chemicals do not degrade in the environment, presenting a major environmental concern, even before the need to replace them every few years.
Some chemicals are being phased out due to their health concerns. However, what they are being replaced with (typically a trade name: GenX), are suspected to have similar toxicity but less likely to accumulate in the human body (4).
Just like our food, aiming to cook with items made of materials we can pronounce, and that our grandmothers would have used, is the best approach for a healthy life.
If you do suspect you have an iron-deficiency, please speak to your doctor, and consult a dietitian or registered nutritionist for more specific dietary advice.
- Alves C, Saleh A, Alaofè H. Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review. PLOS ONE. 2019;14(9):e0221094.
- Whitney E, Rolfes S, Crowe T, Walsh A. Understanding Nutrition. 4th ed. Melbourne: Cengage; 2019.
- University of Otago and Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: Ministry of Health. 2011.
- Sajid M, Ilyas M. PTFE-coated non-stick cookware and toxicity concerns: a perspective. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 2017;24(30):23436-23440.
By Penny Matkin-Hussey, Nutritionist and Health & Wellbeing Specialist