Lucky Iron Fish: White Savior Capitalism in Action

As one of the worst examples of traditional technology misappropriation I’ve seen in years, mixed with white savior complex, with some greed thrown in for good measure, my sense of justice is utterly outraged by this product. Of course the damn thing is being touted in North America by the well-meaning but misinformed as a marvelous innovation for both the poor in “developing” countries, and a rustic solution to our problems here. Fortunately, there are far better solutions to iron deficiency, some of which I list below.

For IRON!

Turns out, the “Lucky” Iron Fish is just an ingot of iron in the shape of a small fish. It’s being marketed as cheap and easy solution to iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia that the manufacturers claim nearly “2 billion people” around the world are vulnerable to, largely in “third word countries”. The adorable website claims that:

“One Lucky Iron FishTM can provide you with up to 90% of your recommended daily intake of iron. It’s safe for the whole family to use, and is reusable for up to 5 years. Simply boil the Fish in any liquid or broth based meals to enrich your food and drinking water with iron.”

The instigators…ummm…researchers…capitalists? first began marketing this in Cambodia. They have also cited their own research for safety and halving the anemia rate there. This story has been picked up by much of North America as an innovation that will revolutionize nutrition in poor areas, because for some reason, no one has *ever* thought of this before in the history of the world, and white saviors everywhere are patting themselves on the back that such a simple thing could save so many of those obviously stoopid poor coloured people. Here. Buy two for some idiot destitute on the other side of the world and feel better!

There is just so much wrong with all of this. It’s gonna take a bit to unpack.

Traditional Technology

Shockingly, humans have known about putting irons in pots and cooking with it for as long as we’ve had iron. Weird, I know. The traditional Celtic “stone soup” was a real Thing. An iron bearing rock was added to a slow cooking broth in emergencies, for very serious medical cases.  Rusty nails used to be a pioneer remedy for low iron, but it’s a nasty last resort, with many inherent problems, including possible tetanus.

Image result for rusty nail boiling
Drink up! This is the traditional emergency remedy the “Fish” is based on.

Most ancient medicinal systems knew about the critical role of iron in human health. Most had various methods of dealing with it. Most ancient cultures that have had enough access to iron make it into cookware as well, but even then, only the richest folks had a full compliment of cast iron cookware and nearly everyone else had to settle for mostly copper and ceramic. And yet, there is a REASON traditional cultures never put iron ingots in their cooking pots, even when bits of iron were far more readily available than the expensive cast iron cooking pots were.

Why? Because they knew that much raw iron makes you sick. 

Iron is necessary for our hemoglobin and other essential components. So women, especially women of childbearing age, use up twice as much iron per month as everyone else, are most at risk for deficiency. And even though iron is a very plentiful mineral on the planet, it’s not a big chunk of metal that we need. We can’t just go munching down on a rock and hope for the best, or we would have already and all our problems would be solved! What humans actually require is the soluble ferrous form of iron ion (Fe+2) that living bodies can easily absorb and work with. When we talk about how much iron we need to prevent anemia, we are supposed to be measuring about how much of this iron ion is actually available for our bodies to use. To get it, health professionals recommend that we eat foods that are rich in iron. Why? Because those life forms have already done the work of making that iron bioavailable for our bodies to use. Iron bound to protein (ferritin) is stored in the body, as is tissue iron in very small amounts.

Rock chewing
Same diff, right?

“contact with oxygen iron forms oxides, which are highly insoluble, and thus is not readily available for uptake by organisms… mechanisms to reduce iron from the insoluble ferric iron (Fe+3) to the soluble ferrous form (Fe+2) as in yeasts….In the human body, iron mainly exists in complex forms bound to protein (hemoprotein)” From Review on iron and its importance for human health

When you use cast iron for cooking, only about 1% of that iron is bioavailable. The rest is an iron oxide that your body can’t process.  It is NOT the same as putting in an iron ingot in mild acid like lemon juice to release the iron. Because different items in food changes the ions. That’s why onion skins have totally different colours when you boil them for dye, depending on the mordant. So there are various cooking methods and foods that make this ratio higher, of course, and that’s why cast iron cookware is generally considered highly beneficial overall. They are also coated with carbon in a process called “seasoning” to make them cook properly and which increases their benefits, *which apparently one is supposed to do to the Fish, but almost no one does*. But that is also why making a small iron ingot into a tea to drink was only used for emergencies for the very ill. It floods your body with useless clogging iron that your body mostly can’t use or process in the hopes that some of the good stuff would get in your system. The more common side effects of that remedy is gastrointestinal distress like nausea and severe constipation. Too much iron can also kill you. You know those vitamin pills that say “there is enough iron in this package to seriously harm a child”? Yeah. If you get too much too fast, your liver can shut down trying to process it. Iron poisoning, especially in the inorganic iron oxide form, is classified as an ecological toxin.

So back to this Fish.

It was originally “developed”, meaning in this case obviously reClaimed traditional technology, by a biomedical University of Guelph graduate student. This guy was on some ‘mission’ in Cambodia and noticed the terrible iron deficiency in nearly half the population. Especially noticeable in women, it caused maternal deaths, low birth weights, and other serious health problems. Now, rather than deal with some of the systemic problems of the issue, like iron deprived soil or poisoned biomes (thanks, America), planting fast growing iron rich crops or straight up poverty, he focused on the people. Which is fair enough. But instead of finding a culturally appropriate technology, or even helping poor folks get more access to healthy food,  he thought… They just need to add iron. So here’s a ingot! Boil it! Problem solved! Turns out Asian peasants must be idiots to him, because they wouldn’t use his solution at all. “So he tried distributing an iron ignot (sic) in the shape of the “try kantrop,” a river fish considered lucky in Cambodian culture, and the Lucky Iron Fish — then called the Happy Fish — was born.”

Now the local folks were suddenly using the thing every time they cooked because it was lucky. In fact, they reported that were now using it more than they would have when it was just an iron ingot. Because again, he didn’t bother pushing the knowledge as hard as the gitchy item. Hmmm…. That doesn’t seem problematic at all.

Trust his fellow student to figure out to monetize the thing, too. Back in Canada, his team tested the concept of…boiling this iron ingot in water or food and seeing if that affected human iron levels. Turns out, it does! And everyone was shocked that you could prove it. And oodles of praise and accolades came their way. So now, what do we do with this research? Well, instead of doing long term studies, especially on women in the area, or just educating folks about the benefits of putting pure scrap iron in their pots when they need to, if you are these guys, you figure out how to make serious cash. Off poor people. Mostly women. Who are iron deficient. Yup.

Now remember. This “recommended daily intake of iron” they are claiming their Fish imparts is NOT the bioavailable kind. They are deliberately equating the iron oxide amount that they can infuse in water and measure in a lab to the iron ion that you need in your diet to continue breathing every day. Which is a very different thing. The damn thing doesn’t even start off rusty, so it’s not an oxide form, so it’s makes it even less useful until it’s some months old. Truly one of the most perniciousness scams to hit in the past few years.

Iron is obviously better for humans in food form, so iron depletion in the soil or in plants, and therefore the animals that eat them, will cause anemia. Hemoglobin, which accounts for most of the iron, is recycled and re-utilized as blood cells are replaced every 120 days in humans, so iron really only needs to be build back up to healthy levels and not constantly renewed at the same intensity as some other minerals. At that point, most normal people should stop intense supplementing, or you can get way too much. But instead of increasing the availability of organic iron in food or supplementation for those at risk, or even finding a culturally appropriate solution that will help people use it wisely and not overdose on inorganic iron, these white saviors made sure to take the Thinky Think out of this, and encourage poor peasants to purchase and use a medicinal product to treat a severe condition *for luck*.

And what about the extras? Copper, cobalt, manganese, and vitamin C are also necessary for the absorption of iron, none of which is addressed with an iron ingot in your teapot.

Which is why it works even better in North America. We aren’t as deprived of those minerals as much as other areas, so it can be tempting to see it as a great solution here. Even with more ideal conditions, though, we still only absorb about 8% of the *bioavailable* iron. So imagine how much of this iron ingot water they have to ingest to get the amount of iron they would need from food. And how much extra of the *inorganic* iron their bodies must have to endure to get the good stuff.

So now it’s like this: they are recommending to the vulnerable populations that the Fish is supposed to be boiled in almost anything you cook. Cast iron pots aren’t always used to boil, and not necessarily for every dish.  It’s a case of scale. Yes, cast iron is good for you. But should you chow down on the equivalent of cast iron filings with every meal?

What could go wrong?

Even though the use of iron cookware on human health has much long term data, and even though boiling an iron ingot is a traditional desperate remedy for severe anemia, no population has ever consumed boiled iron ingot water with such frequency. This appears to be a totally new practice and we have absolutely no data on its long term safety or its interaction with local food practices and conditions. In fact, we can be reasonably certain that the buildup of inorganic iron in their systems will result in very serious health problems over time. But that is usual in the case of white saviorism. The very real systemic problems that are often caused by Western exploitation or aggression are often “solved” by white folks with no idea of local context, history, or conditions, and no investment in any repercussions. Thus, they often create more problems than they solve, in the end. Which they also don’t have to deal with.

The best part of this I think is now they are marketing to the California yoga crowd as a solution to the anemia of the Western world. I’ve heard far too many inquiries and praises over the darn thing in the alt health industry in Canada and the US. Any long term problems from the Fish will probably be noticed here first, even if they manifest differently. Our cookery, our cuisine, and our supplementation is vastly different. We also aren’t encouraged to use it with every meal. However, when this finally goes belly up, and there is almost no way that it won’t at some point, it will be the white women in North America who will be the first who are taken seriously in their complaints. After much stonewalling and telling us that it’s probably something else, naturally.

Iron Deficiency solutions (that happen to be vegan)

Thankfully, since most traditional medical systems knew the importance of iron, there are actually lots of safe solutions that are cheap and easy to use. They are bioavailable and won’t pose a danger to your family if someone accidentally swallows them or uses them too much. They also take into account the other vitamins and minerals that your body needs to process the iron. There are many different choices that can fit into your lifestyle and budget.

As with any health or traditional knowledge, these are entirely presented for you to investigate as possibilities, and all of this only applies to the average person. People with iron sensitivity and other conditions, for example, always need to exercise caution. But if you have those conditions, then you already know that…

Beet Root Powder

20150915_150503
Women’s tonic tincture, with beet root powder

Seriously my favourite and first goto for nearly everyone. It’s highly bioavailable, and helps fix anemia and blood pressure almost immediately. Like stupid fast. It’s dirt cheap, and you can put it in capsules, tinctures, or even put it in smoothies or cook and bake with it! I use it to colour candies, cookies, cakes, icings and such. It’s one of the best food dyes around.

I took about 6 caps a day when I got light during-headed my pregnancy. Fixed in hours. I even had my husband hand me two when I almost passed out after the birth and it cured me instantly. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Supplements

Almost everyone cannot get iron poisoning or iron buildup from bioavailable iron. Unutilized, your body just gets rid of it. Only folks with rare conditions have trouble with that, unless you take a whole bunch at once. (That’s what those “contains enough iron to seriously harm a child” labels are for.) However, most supplements don’t contain much bioavailable iron, and it’s the OTHER iron in there that can clog up your system and poison you over the long term. So don’t forget, even in supplements, you still largely get what you pay for. Most health food stores carry trusted brands that have been doing this for decades. They usually have no fillers, are as bioavailable as possible, and contain no allergens where possible. They might be slightly more expensive, but they are worth it for how much you get out of them. Walmart, grocery stores, even most pharmacies are still very new to this scene, and as such, don’t really have the experience. Their products might be less expensive, but they are often stuffed with fillers, are rarely as bioavailable, and have a far less dosage per pill than the good brands, so you aren’t saving much.

Hemetic (Iron Rich) Herbs

Image result for nettle
Stinging Nettle Ravioli

There are so many herbs that are traditionally used in teas and foods to help boost your iron. Nettle and dandelion leaves or greens are so notable in Western herbology that they are recommended for pregnant and nursing women. They also contain some of the vitamin C and other minerals needed for absorption of the iron. They both need to be blanched before they are eaten in salads, since dandelion can be a bit bitter, and the sting has to be taken out of the nettles. It’s sometimes easiest to make them into teas as fresh or dried, cook in food, or even made into blood strengthening tinctures.

Image result for dandelion leaf
Dandelion leaf salad

A mention for the Floradix product then: it’s a premade liquid mixture of many of these herbs. It’s on the pricey side, but it’s a highly varied blend, with lots of different vitamins and minerals in it, to help with the absorption. And darn tasty, so it’s great for kids, too. With so many other options, though, you may want to try making something similar yourself.

Saharat “iron wine”

Someone needs to get me the recipe for this! It’s apparently a traditional Eastern European cure for anemia. It’s clearly an infused herbal alcohol, but that is all I got. And apparently, it’s goddam famous! Except not in English, which totally frustrates my efforts…

So for Vegetarian and Vegan diets…

In particular, those can be problematic for iron; not because we don’t get enough if we eat a variety of foods, but because we might not be getting enough of the *other* vitamins and minerals we need for absorption. And since iron is necessary for B-complex absorption, it’s even more important that we stay topped up for our B-12 levels. Contrary to Western beliefs, there are many traditional diets on the planet that have been vegetarian and vegan for thousands of years. Those cuisines evolved to include all the necessary nutrition, including iron and its associates, or their people would have gotten very sick. Since humans aren’t stupid and science is a pagan invention.  What one consumes with the iron makes a huge difference on how it’s absorbed. Another issue the Iron Fish doesn’t take into account. Traditional diets, on the other hand, often pair such foods for maximum bioavailabilty. Which is why I’m not a fan of Fusion, and why I have an entire meal based on one tradition at a time, to ensure the best combinations. So when in doubt, I often look to traditional cultural contexts for solutions. There are many different studies on how vegan and vegetarian diets affect everyone from pregnant women, to infants, to children to old folks. Alot of those studies aren’t done in North America, though, but in India, China, and other places where vegan and vegetarian diets are the norm. So when you are looking up the statistics and information for yourself and your family, keep those parameters in mind. It will be alot easier to confront the naysayers if you need to have the data.

Most people don’t need the”Fish”

Even *if* you are willing to concede that impoverished folks living in areas that have denuded soil or chemical or climate destruction need the extreme solution of an iron ingot, they certainly don’t need it for long. It’s a highly dangerous and short term emergency procedure that only temporarily solves the problem. It doesn’t include all the vitamins and minerals necessary for proper absorption, and there is no mechanism to solve any of those problems in the long term. Which is still terrible.

But what is worse is the current fad for recommending it for anemia *in developed areas*. Yes, I am very well aware that alot of people in North America for example, especially women, suffer from anemia and can’t easily fix it due to poverty. But even with that, they should be aware that it’s still a short term extreme solution, and there are far better, and less dangerous, long term and just as inexpensive solutions available. Like picking your own dandelions and nettles (unsprayed, of course) and making them into tea or salads, or wine, one of the traditional vectors. Yellow dock is one of the traditional medicines in the Americas and Europe. Beet root powder is cheap like dirt. A pound in bulk is $9-$14 CAD from many shops on the ‘net and will last you a year. Even already made into pill form it’s less than $10 a bottle.

Do not buy into this. Do not recommend the Fish to woman for anemia. Do not use it unless you are literally dying and need a solution before you get to the hospital. It is traditionally technology that was *only* used in emergencies for a reason. We have far better emergency solutions now. Though quite frankly, the traditional long term solutions for iron deficiency still hold their own.

 

 

Footnotes: How vegetarian cuisine interacts with iron cookware and iron bioavailability

“Iron absorption from vegetarian diets can likely be somewhat improved by modifying food preparation techniques, food selection, and food combinations. Such modifications could include the use of iron cookware (53) (especially for cooking acidic foods that solubilize iron from the pan), the consumption of iron-containing foods concurrently with sources of ascorbic acid–containing foods while limiting inhibitory foods such as coffee and tea to between meals, and the selection of lower-phytate foods or the use of preparation methods that reduce phytic acid (54). http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/633S.full

  1. Martinez FE, Vannucchi H. Bioavailability of iron added to the diet by cooking food in an iron pot. Nutr Res 1986;6:421–8.

None of the supplements that actually increase iron in the body are the iron(III) oxide that is the Iron Fish. The side effects of consuming too much non-bioavailable iron on the digestive system, like from the ferrous oxide, are noted.

 

“Frequently used forms of iron in supplements include ferrous and ferric iron salts, such as ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferric citrate, and ferric sulfate [3,18]. Because of its higher solubility, ferrous iron in dietary supplements is more bioavailable than ferric iron [3]. High doses of supplemental iron (45 mg/day or more) may cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea and constipation [5]. Other forms of supplemental iron, such as heme iron polypeptides, carbonyl iron, iron amino-acid chelates, and polysaccharide-iron complexes, might have fewer gastrointestinal side effects than ferrous or ferric salts [18].” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/

“There are also some strategies that can be used to enhance iron bioavailability. Eating foods with high levels of vitamin C can enhance the availability of non-heme iron up to six-fold. Therefore, eating fruits and vegetables along with the high iron foods named in the list will enhance the absorption of iron. Foods such as broccoli, potatoes, and swiss chard are especially good choices because they contain high levels of both iron and vitamin C and should become staple foods of your vegan diet. Conversely, tannins found in tea and coffee, phytates found in cereal and legumes, and soy protein may hinder iron absorption and should be limited when high iron foods are consumed. ” http://www.vegkitchen.com/nutrition/iron/#DepuX31var4SVKyk.99

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