When it comes to shopping for cookware, chances are you're not thinking about the potential health benefits certain pots and pans can provide. Instead, you're considering durability, cost, conductivity and safety — all valuable traits.
But research suggests that certain materials trump others in terms of health benefits. Here's why you might want to invest in a cast-iron skillet or pot instead of one that's made of copper or aluminum.
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The Benefits of Cast Iron Cookware
"Research has shown an increased level of iron in foods cooked in cast-iron cookware — especially high-acid foods that encourage the leaching of iron out of the pan, like eggs or tomatoes," says Ella Davar, RD, an integrative nutritionist based in New York.
"The greater the acidity of the food and the longer you cook it, the more iron is transferred."
Cast-iron pans transfer small amounts of iron into food while cooking, which may help infuse your dish with the hemoglobin-producing mineral. FYI, iron produces the protein hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to red blood cells throughout the body, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Does Cooking in Cast Iron Help Anemia?
In fact, a September 2019 review in PLOS One found that iron cookware could help reduce iron deficiency anemia, a type of anemia caused by a lack of iron in the body, especially among children.
And a November 2018 study in Public Health and Nutrition evaluated the differences in iron content between cooked black beans and beets in a cast-iron pan and a non-cast-iron pan. Results showed that the iron content for both foods increased when cooked in a cast iron.
Iron deficiency anemia is common among people of childbearing age and those who are pregnant because they need twice the amount of iron to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby, per the Mayo Clinic.
"However, it's very hard to measure the actual quantities of iron being transferred to the food and more research is needed to answer these questions in a more precise way," Davar says. So it's best not to depend on the cookware as your sole means of getting more iron in your diet. That said, it's generally safe to use and is a cost-effective alternative to stainless-steel pots.
Is Cast Iron Safe?
"If you look back to 100 years ago, you would find most people using cookware in the form of cast-iron pots and pans on a daily basis," Davar says.
"In general, cast-iron cookware is safe and effective in the kitchen. It may be a great addition for those who are deficient in iron, as it has great potential for some of the iron to make its way into the food."
She also notes that well-seasoned cast-iron pans are durable and can last for a long period of time. They're also oven-safe, making them a versatile tool with which you can bake bread, pasta and meat dishes.
Just like cooking with iron ingots, such as Lucky Iron Fish, Davar says there's a risk of iron toxicity when using cast-iron cookware, particularly if you have a condition like hemochromatosis, which causes you to absorb too much iron from the foods you eat, per the Mayo Clinic.
Hemochromatosis is usually genetic, but most people start to experience symptoms later in life. Post-menopausal people, in particular, may develop symptoms because they no longer lose iron during their periods.
What to Look for When Shopping for Cast-Iron Pots and Pans
If you want to reap the benefits of iron, Davar recommends purchasing a cast-iron pan made purely with iron instead of one that's enameled. "Plus, a well-seasoned pan is non-stick and it lasts for generations," she says.
Seasoning is the black patina that builds up in your cast-iron skillet or pot with regular use, according to Field Company, a maker of cast-iron pans. Unlike other types of cooking pans, cast-iron skillets actually get better with use. A new cast-iron pan will feel rough, but one that's been used for some time will have a slicker surface
Cast irons aren't necessarily as convenient as other pans — they require good care, which includes thorough rinsing and drying. Leaving a pan wet can develop rust, but you can help prevent this by coating the inside with oil after use.
The Best Cast-Iron Skillets to Buy
"There are many reasons to use cast-iron cookware, but if you want more iron in your diet, it's best not to count on the skillet for anything more than trace amounts. Instead, eat more high-iron foods, like oysters, clams, mussels, canned sardines, canned light tuna, as well as beef, poultry, chicken liver and other organ meats," Davar says.
If you're a vegetarian or vegan, the most effective way to optimize your iron intake is to eat vitamin C-rich foods with plant-based sources of iron. This will help with absorption, Davar says. (Remember: There are two forms of iron: Heme and non-heme. Heme sources come from animals, like meat, poultry and seafood, while non-heme sources are in plant foods, like whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and leafy greens.)
"Vitamin C-rich foods eaten at the same meal can improve the absorption of non-heme iron. An example would be bell peppers and broccoli with beef steak," she explains. Some of Davar's favorite plant-based iron sources are beans, lentils, dark chocolate (at least 55 percent), spinach, potato with skin and all types of nuts and seeds.
- National Institutes of Health: "Iron"
- PLOS One: "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"
- Journal of Public Health Nutrition: "Effect of Cooking Utensil on Iron Content of Food"
- Mayo Clinic: "Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy: Prevention Tips"
- Field Company: "How to Season Cast Iron Cookware"