Balti curries and iron

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 27 May 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1368
  1. S J Fairweather-Tait, head of mineral metabolism groupa,
  2. T E Fox, research scientista,
  3. A Mallillin, research scientista
  1. a Institute of Food Research, Norwich Laboratory, Norwich NR4 7UA
  1. Correspondence to: S J Fairweather-Tait.
  • Accepted 31 March 1995

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most prevalent nutritional problem in the world today and is recognised as a particular problem in developing countries. Those considered to be at greatest risk of developing nutritional iron deficiency are young children and women of reproductive age, especially pregnant and lactating women. Most cases of iron deficiency anaemia can be prevented or treated by iron supplementation and good nutrition.

The use of cast iron cookware has been shown to increase the iron content of food,1 and the bioavailability of this contaminant iron has been shown to be high.2 Although the use of cast iron cookware is not particularly widespread in the United Kingdom, it seems to be gaining in popularity and is specifically used in the preparation of an Indian cuisine known as balti, where the food (a curry) is served straight from a small cast iron wok. Recently cook-chill balti meals have been introduced into high street supermarkets, so we undertook a study to compare the iron content of these meals prepared in a cast iron balti wok with the food as bought.

Methods and results

Three cook-chill meals—a vegetable curry, a chicken curry, and a balti vegetable curry—were obtained from Sainsbury's supermarket. All three meals were divided into two weighed portions with one portion being cooked in a balti wok on a low gas ring for 20 minutes. Both portions of each meal were freeze dried and ashed in a muffle furnace at 480°C for 48 hours and the iron content of each portion analysed in triplicate by flame atomic absorption spectrophotometry.3

Iron content* of commercially prepared curry meals before and after cooking in a cast iron balti wok

View this table:

The results of the analysis of iron content showed a considerable increase in all of the meals cooked in the balti wok (see table).


These data suggest that the iron intake of people consuming traditional balti meals could be extremely high, falling well outside the normal range of dietary intake (10-12 mg/day).4 For example, a meal of chicken and vegetable balti dishes could provide about 50 mg of iron. This would be a very useful source of dietary iron for vulnerable members of the population, such as women, 14% of whom have little or no body iron stores (serum ferritin <13 μg/l) and 4% of whom have iron deficiency anaemia.4

Giving dietary advice on iron is not easy because the absorption of iron from meals varies greatly. In fortified foods the chemical form of the added iron affects its bioavailability, which may in some instances be low. One of the richest sources of well absorbed iron is liver (7 mg iron/portion), but this contains considerably less iron than meals cooked in the balti wok. Foods prepared in cast iron cookware, such as balti curries, could therefore be included in the list of foods high in iron recommended for people with an existing or potential problem of iron deficiency. Except for people with hereditary haemochromatosis, who should be advised to avoid balti curries prepared in cast iron cookware, our findings show that balti meals not only add spice to your life but also provide a useful quantity of potentially absorbable iron.


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