This Little Fish Made of Iron Could Wipe Out Anemia Around the World

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population suffers from iron deficiency, and 30 percent have anemia, the result of living with that deficiency for too long. (A report from the organization earlier this year states that “iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States.”) The condition can result in a wide range of illnesses, from simple fatigue to impaired cognition to increased susceptibility to sickness—particularly for women and girls—and in severe cases, death. In Cambodia, anemia has reached near epidemic levels; the Financial Times reports that among children 5 and under, 55 percent suffer from the ailment.

Christopher Charles, a Canadian scientist and medical student, traveled to Cambodia in 2008 as part of a research project. While there, he quickly realized the immensity of the problem, and set about looking for a solution. Iron tablets had failed to gain traction, since people didn’t like how they made them feel, not to mention their prohibitive cost. Charles was aware of previous research suggesting iron pots add iron to food during cooking, but the sheer number of variables, including size of the pot and acidity level of the food being prepared, not to mention price and the fact that iron pots are anything but easily transportable, made them less than optimal to address the problem. The scientist then struck on the idea that cooking with a single, portable piece of iron could make all the difference. So he handed out small blocks of iron, and explained their usefulness. The idea didn’t quite catch on initially (Charles discovered they were mainly being used as doorstops), but then it just became an issue of aesthetics. So Charles decided on an image makeover.

A little cultural insight provided the next breakthrough: he learned a local species of fish is “widely consumed and considered to be lucky in Khmer folklore.” His original iron lump was made over to look like the favored fish, and the response changed overnight. That was partly aided by the fact that using the fish is simple. Cooks drop it into a pot of water or broth along with a few drops of citrus juice or apple cider vinegar, which helps with iron absorption, bring things to a boil for 10 minutes, remove the Lucky Iron Fish, and prepare their food as they normally would.

According to the Lucky Iron Fish site, one iron fish “can provide an entire family with up to 75 percent  of their daily iron intake for up to five years.” The company notes that after the Cambodian families had cooked with the Lucky Iron Fish every day for nine months, there was a 50 percent decline in the occurrence of anemia. The materials for the fish are locally sourced and the company employs Cambodian locals in production. You can also buy one of the smiling fish replicas for $25, and the company will donate a fish to a community in need.

A video, below, helps explain how the company works and the health benefits of the Lucky Iron Fish, which hopes to help wipe out anemia around the world. 

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