Using cast iron for cooking presents a little known but serious health risk particularly for middle-aged men and menopausal women. How to avoid this issue and use safely!
Given the amount of time I spend in the kitchen preparing meals for my family, you might be surprised to learn that I do not own any cast iron pans. What’s more, I don’t intend to purchase or use cast iron anytime in the future (I choose to cook in toxin-free, traditional clay pots).
This may seem like heresy particularly since cast iron skillets are almost universally considered to be a healthy and durable choice for the preparation of homecooked meals.
However, I have good reasons for my decision, and science bears out my serious concerns about using cast iron pans unless they also include a quality enamel layer to prevent contact of the food with the iron surface.
Excess Iron is a Health Hazard
My primary reason for opting out of cast iron revolves around the health problems caused by excess iron in the diet. Research has demonstrated that cooking with iron pots and pans significantly raises iron levels in food. Correspondingly, the iron levels of those who eat that food increase as well. (1, 2)
Women do not typically need to worry about this problem as long as they are menstruating. The monthly cycle is a protective factor against this condition. Growing children also are not particularly susceptible as growth obviously requires more blood and more iron.
Adult Men and Menopausal Women Most at Risk
However, for adult men (even fully grown young men) and menopausal women, cast iron can definitely pose a problem as the iron that naturally gets into food from the utilization of this type of cookware can result in iron rising to toxic levels. This condition is associated with a host of serious health problems.
Iron is one of the few minerals we cannot eliminate except through blood loss. Therefore supplements should never contain iron. Moreover, cooking with cast iron is a questionable choice for this segment of the population.
Most people view iron as a nutrient, and indeed it is. It is also a powerful agent of oxidation in the body. This means that excess iron increases the chances of cancer and can severely damage the heart, arteries, and other organs.
In addition, persons with an inherited condition called hemochromatosis, or iron overload disease, can be especially harmed from iron intake. If you have any family members with this condition (about 1 million Americans), you should be especially careful with sources of iron in your diet.
Iron Overload Symptoms
Unfortunately, the symptoms of iron overload are similar to those of other conditions. Therefore it may be wise to request a transferrin saturation test at your next check-up to eliminate iron as a potential source of your health woes.
Avoiding cast iron is particularly important if you suffer from any of the following conditions and/or are an adult male or menopausal female:
- Joint or muscle weakness
- Mysterious stomach or other gastrointestinal pain/nausea
- Weight loss that cannot be explained
- Elevated liver enzymes
- Shortness of breath
- Early menopause
- Loss of sex drive
- Loss of body hair (this is also a symptom of adrenal fatigue)
Later stage symptoms of iron toxicity
If iron overload continues for extended periods of time, more serious symptoms can emerge such as the following.
- Greying or bronzing of the skin
- Blood sugar issues
- Irregular heartbeat
- Liver problems
How to Resolve Iron Overload Quickly
If you’ve been cooking with cast iron for a long time and are an adult male or menopausal female, it might be wise to donate blood right away. This practice will reduce iron stores immediately. Remember, loss of blood is the only way to resolve iron toxicity problems.
Continue regular blood donation until you can completely switch over to another type of nontoxic cookware such as clay, enamel, glass, or titanium.
Anemia Usually from an Imbalanced Gut NOT Inadequate Iron
Believe it or not, there is plenty of iron in the diet of the typical American. Even those eating the horrific Standard American Diet need not worry about inadequate iron intake. In addition, there is almost certainly adequate iron intake for a person eating a diet based on traditional foods and also in the diets of vegetarians.
Therefore, if you are anemic or suffer from pregnancy anemia and feel the need to use cast iron to increase your iron levels, you may wish to consider an imbalanced gut as a more likely source of the problem. Common gut pathogens consume iron and are a frequent cause of anemia. These pathogens include Actinomyces spp., Mycobacterium spp., pathogenic strains of E. coli, Corynebacterium spp., along with many others. Previous use of the birth control pill or antibiotics makes one especially prone to anemia issues.
Unfortunately, increasing iron intake with cast iron only makes these iron loving pathogens grow stronger. It does little to remedy anemia over the long haul. Therefore, rebalancing the gut with beneficial bacterial strains through diet and lifestyle changes rather than use of cast iron or iron supplements is the best approach to solving the root of the problem.
Using Cast Iron Safely
As mentioned above, using enameled cast iron is a safe option if you prefer the ease of use and heavy feel of cast iron pans. The enameled layer protects the food from contact with the iron portion of the pan and hence, offers an option that is both practical and safe. I recommend Le Creuset cookware as one of the best quality brands on the market if this is something you wish to explore.
It’s not just cast iron that is a potential health hazard. Learning to use stainless steel cookware, aluminum bakeware, and other kitchen equipment safely is of paramount importance for the modern cook. It’s not just about the food. Preparation is very important too to avoid the introduction of unwanted toxins!
(1) Food prepared in iron cooking pots as an intervention for reducing iron deficiency anemia
(2) Iron Content of Food Cooked in Iron Utensils
(3) Excess Iron: A Health Risk?
(4) Gut and Psychology Syndrome
Those concerned about contaminants in modern cast iron cookware just have to go by flea markets, garage sales and antique stores and they should be able to find all the vintage cast iron ware they could want. Even scrap metal yards have them lying around. Burn off the old seasoning in your fireplace or next time you set your oven to “clean”, sandblast, wash off and re-season: good for another 100 years and the old cast iron ware was probably made with “virgin” cast iron: no toxins.
Sarah Pope MGA
Great tip. Thanks!
There are vintage glass pans for stove top; Corning Vision. They get very hot with little heat, so liquid food burns to the bottom if you don’t wait 1/2 minute or so after removing from heat before to pour it out. Also frying pans, all sorts of pans at Ebay. You have a lot of them in America. I am searching if it is dangerous to use a frying pan that gor rusty. I have had painful cramps since I got students to live in my apartment and they are impossible to teach how top clean the cast iron and all my pans now got rusty. The last one yesterday. I plan to discard them all. I thought that maybe my legcramps come from the rust?
From my understanding you are incorrect regarding the statement that we cannot eliminate iron except through blood loss. Please check the 2009 study by Hunt, Zito and Johnson published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There was wide variation, but men lost .11 to 2.07 mg/d, .86 to 1.57 for post menopausal women. There are earlier peer reviewed studies that support this as well. Humans lose some iron normally through the GI tract and exfoliation.
Raising the awareness that too much iron can be an issue and that absorption is often an issue in the effectiveness of oral supplements is fine. However, in my opinion, your article is misleading based on peer reviewed and published studies, and the statement that supplements should NEVER contain iron is irresponsible
Sarah Pope MGA
That may be true, but it certainly would be a tiny amount … not enough to reduce iron levels in the blood by enough to make it safe to use cast iron for cooking especially adult men.
I Sarah, i live in Portugal, and for years i`ve looking for the best non leaching pan to use on induction stoves. Can you help me? perhaps cast iron is the best on the market..
Please help 🙂
Sarah Pope MGA
Enameled cast iron works very well as it shields much of the iron from going into the food.
I have been using Cast iron pans for the last 18 months and my iron levels have increased from 120 to 150 which is approaching dangerously high at 170. There is no doubt that using Iron pans is particularly dangerous to the health of men over 50 yrs!
I am at my wits end… I cannot use Teflon, copper, cast iron, anything with a ceramic coating or non-stick coating. I will try the 100% ceramic. Thanks Alex
I had typed in Cast iron and Cancer and landed here. My concern was/is that some of the ‘Benefits’ of Cast Iron – the searing browning properties could be cancer causing. It’s always something I tell ya. I also wonder if watching tons of commercials about Cancer can cause Caner D’Ohhh!
I referred to the abstracts cited above. The first was rather vague, using language such as “there is some evidence…” They only quoted results for anaemic individuals, for whom the cooking in iron acted as a restorative therapy, and suggested this as an intervention for such people.
The second abstract concluded that Fe elevation does occur, but states that with cast iron the results were variable, which may reflect differences in the level of seasoning built up, whether the food was fried in fat or cooked in water, the cooking liquid pH and the cooking time in each case.
Although it is indeed highly conserved, Fe can be excreted in urine, and pathology labs can test for it. Hunt et. Al (2009) Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 89:6, p1792 cites a typical (median) clearance of 1.18 mg per day for men, which is not far short of the median value for menstruating women (1.58 mg per day) and overall there was a 40X range of excreted Fe (from min. to max.).
To this we can consider background anecdotal info; cast iron was the predominant cooking surface in America for about a century on wood or coal ranges, from the mid 19th Century through to the second world war. Those generations were mostly healthy, lean and highly fertile compared with today, suggesting that elevated Fe in the system was the least of their problems. I myself have used seasoned cast iron for several years now, and my serum Fe is normal. If Fe vessels were that risky, stainless steel cookware and brewing equipment (70% Fe) should also be causing problems, even if the Fe/Ni/Cr alloy is passivated at the surface by oxidation. For most people will use steel implements and cutlery to stir and scrape out cooked food from these saucepans and thus disturb the surface layer.
So, to conclude, I think more thorough and specific testing needs to be done before verifying your assertion of risk from cast iron cookware.
It is definitely an intriguing article. As a new cast iron skillet owner, I was more after authenticity in cooking than health effects. Everyone in my family lives really long lives, 90s+, so I’m going to employ a little more of their wisdom and marry it with some healthier choices. My grandmother used cast iron for over 85 years and made clay pots. She preferred the cast iron for cooking and NEVER seasoned it. As my father explained, he never saw her “clean it” as she cooked three meals a day for 9 people every day. Her food has never been duplicated, but she made the most amazing Mexican food with simple cast iron cookware.
With regard to health concerns, and as a professional baker and healthy business owner, I am definitely aware of these issues but whenever I hear about overload of anything, the greater concern is and always will be mineral deficiencies. In other words, what minerals/vitamins are absent or in short supply to regulate such “iron overload”.
In the 40s-50s, foods were minerally rich and food “was medicine”, diseases minimal and people lived longer.
Now, 2-3 generations later, foods are minerally poor and GMO, processed foods reign supreme, and we’re getting cancer and diseases as a result of it. Minerals are not in the soil, so that wonderfully grass fed organic milk or your bounty from your local farmers market may have very little to no nutrients. When I learned this a few years back, I spoke to my friends in agriculture and scientific community and they concurred with what I’ve observed. It doesn’t matter if it is organic or conventional soil as the minerals are not being replenished.
So, I’m going to cook a little with cast iron because it’s another way to master food and it looks like fun. What concerns me more is disease prevention and mineral sufficiency. I can’t depend upon my food anymore. I don’t go to Farmer’s markets anymore as I’d rather spend my Saturdays cooking/cleaning. My father is 73, looks 50, take no prescriptions and doesn’t need a doctor. He works alongside 25-year-olds in 95 degree heat as a Project Manager. People can’t believe how old he is when they tell him. He eats what I cook and prepare for everything and takes homeopathy once in a while. It’s only been in the last 4 years that he’s “eaten well”, so if you’re over 50 it’s never too late to really change your diet.