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Do Iron Pots Enrich the Foods Cooked in Them?

By Luis Pons
September 25, 2002

Cooking with iron pots may help prevent iron deficiency, according to a joint study by Cornell University and Agricultural Research Service scientists. They compared the bioavailability of iron in Chinese cabbage meals cooked in pots made of iron and aluminum.

The study was conducted at the ARS U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory on Cornell's Ithaca, N.Y., campus by graduate student Shumei Yun and epidemiologist Jean-Pierre Habicht of the university's Division of Nutritional Sciences.

They cooked three Chinese cabbage dishes--fresh Chinese cabbage, fresh Chinese cabbage with vinegar, and fermented Chinese cabbage (sauerkraut)--identically in iron and aluminum pots, following a common recipe from northwest China.

They concluded that in each case, cabbage dishes cooked in iron pots had more available iron than those cooked in aluminum ones.

The type of food being cooked also seemed to affect the pots' iron. Vinegar or acidic foods such as sauerkraut appeared to leach more iron from the pots, making more iron available for absorption.

To measure the bioavailable iron, the researchers used the ARS lab's revolutionary "fake gut." Coupling simulated digestion with a human intestinal cell line, it is the first system to accurately model in the laboratory what occurs in the human intestinal tract. Raymond Glahn, the ARS physiologist who designed the model system, was a collaborator in this study. Information about the "fake gut" appeared in the August 1999Agricultural Research magazine, online at:


ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

The researchers were drawn to recipes from northwestern China by surveys that showed significantly lower rates of iron deficiency in resource-poor regions there, in comparison to similar regions elsewhere in the country. Plant-based diets that include lots of rice vinegar and sauerkraut cooked in iron pots are common in the region.

Iron deficiency anemia, the most serious form of iron deficiency, is among the developing world's most prevalent nutritional problems. It is associated with reduced capacity for physical labor and can lead to illness and death.

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