Feeling Sluggish? Looking Pale? Why You Might Need a ‘Lucky Iron Fish’

Photo courtesy of Lucky Iron Fish

It’s proving to be a beautifully uncomplicated solution to a complex problem.

To treat iron-deficiency anemia in rural areas of Cambodia, a Canadian company is making and selling cast iron ingots that can be dropped into boiling water where they act as fortifiers. The reusable ingots leach small amounts of iron into the water, which can then be cooled and consumed for drinking or used in a soup. Using the fish daily —it needs to submersed in boiling water for 10 minutes— will supply 75% percent of the iron an adult needs in a day. Brilliant.

Equally ingenious, even witty, is the ingot’s design: it’s a smiling, palm-sized fish, cute enough to be a family pet. When the fish’s smile fades—in about five years—it means the ingot has become less potent and needs to be replaced. A fish is a symbol of good luck in Cambodia, which obviously helps health advocates with the sales pitch. The good reasons for dropping a chunk of metal into one’s pot aren’t intuitively understood.

These ‘Lucky Iron Fish,’ made by a Guelph company of the same name, are forged in foundries in Cambodia and Eastern Ontario. The company was launched in 2012 by Gavin Armstrong, a University of Guelph PhD student of biomedical science, and designer of the current ingot. The initial idea to use an iron fish this way was was the innovation of Christopher Charles, PhD, a former student at the university who introduced the metal remedies in 2008. He now sits on the company’s board.

Already, 10,000 families in Cambodia have a fish at home. The latest research by Lucky Iron Fish showed a 50% decrease in the incidence of clinical iron deficiency anemia among those who cooked with the iron fish for nine months, and a general increase in users’ iron levels.

Now the company has plans to expand, first to other countries of Southeast Asia and later to other impoverished nations. Armstrong says he’s “got some fish in Ethiopia and Rwanda right now,” and hopes to eventually be directing a global army of the ingots. Across the world, two billion people are anemic, with iron deficiency as the most common cause.

Designed by Gavin Armstrong, the fish are cast iron ingots that can be dropped into boiling water where they act as fortifiers
Designed by Gavin Armstrong, the fish are cast iron ingots that can be dropped into boiling water where they act as fortifiers

Earlier this month, Lucky Iron Fish began shipping internationally from its Canadian foundry to other Western nations. The fish, packaged in a tiny woven basket and sold through the company’s online store, is now available for mailing to North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. For each piece sold, the company will donate one to a non-profit hospital in Cambodia which will distribute the metal lifesavers to those in need.

If you’re thinking you could use one swimming around your kitchen, you’re not alone. The fish have been available in Canada since October, and Armstrong says he’s been surprised by how many people have bought one for themselves: about 5,000 have been sold online. That’s what’s unique about anemia and why it’s the world’s most prevalent nutritional disorder: although it affects children and women in developing countries, it’s also common in industrialized nations.

Anemia’s Toll

The symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia aren’t always obvious, especially in mild cases. Often an anemic person will feel sluggish and dizzy, and is easily winded. Because the red blood cells can not carry enough oxygen to other parts of the body, climbing stairs, for example, becomes a serious undertaking.

In countries where iron-rich foods, like meat, are abundant, anemia is a risk to only certain people: vegetarians who don’t monitor their nutritional intake; pregnant women; people with Crohn’s and other digestive disorders; teenagers who have growth spurts; and women and teens who lose large amounts of blood during menstruation, among others. In developing countries, the disorder is often a result of malnutrition and can be complicated by potentially fatal conditions like HIV, malaria, or tuberculosis. Severe anemia often leads to maternal death and delayed development in children. 

People who struggle to keep their iron levels high are usually prescribed supplements, which come with side effects and can be toxic if over-used. In wealthier nations, some people outfit their pantry with cast iron pans and skillets, which will leach iron into food as it cooks. The Lucky Iron Fish operates on the same principle, but offers a fairly standardized amount of iron with each use, unlike pots and pans. The little fish are also less expensive than cookware, easy to clean, and have no side effects. 

With each use, Lucky Iron Fish releases 70 micrograms (0.7 milligrams) of bioavailable iron per gram of iron. Armstrong compares that to eating a 100 gram chicken breast every day. Even if a person is taking supplements, the total amount of iron consumed wouldn't come near levels that could be toxic. To see results, the company recommends using the fish everyday for six months and always with a splash of lemon or another citrus. The acidified water will make the iron more absorbable. “People who are literally and figuratively sick of iron supplements are now giving this a try,” says Armstrong.

“The fish definitely works. I feel stronger and more able to work in the fields”

Lucky Iron Fish is now running its third clinical trial in Cambodia, this one measuring the efficacy of the Lucky Iron Fish versus supplements in two groups of people diagnosed with anemia. Anecdotally, Cambodians cooking with the fish are reporting that the feel better, and that they can see the difference in their children’s school work. “The fish definitely works. I feel stronger and more able to work in the fields,” one farmer in the Kandal province told a company employee.

For its success in combating what WHO calls “a public health condition of epidemic proportions,” Lucky Iron Fish has won a school of awards, including a silver Edison Award this year, and a Commitment to Action award from the Clinton Global Initiative University in 2014.

As the company gains traction, it will stick to a fish in every pot as its ultimate goal, and not any other shape or animal. A fish, Armstrong says, has relevance in many cultures and religions—and it’s now part of the Guelph firm’s heritage.