Say “home cooking,” and many families around the world will show you the same tool: the trusty pressure cooker. Sturdy, reliable, and energy-efficient, it makes short work of rice, cooks veggies in minutes, and turns even tough cuts of meat into tender bites. Because it cooks food fast—and with less fuel than an oven—a pressure cooker is also good at preserving both nutrition and resources. That’s a big deal in low-resource settings, where every bite counts.
Now, PATH’s nutrition experts, along with partners, are exploring whether this humble tool can do something even more important: help stop the iron deficiency that causes energy-draining, life-threatening anemia for thousands of people worldwide.
Fishing for iron
“The project actually started with another great idea,” notes Megan Parker, senior nutrition researcher at PATH. “A few years ago, a Canadian graduate student invented something called the Lucky Iron Fish™ to help fight iron-deficiency anemia (IDA).”
Small enough to fit in a palm, the fish-shaped ingot, made of iron, is designed to be placed into a family cooking pot along with a stew, lentils, rice, or broth. Jogged by food acids, it releases needed iron into each meal.
“It was time,” adds Ruchika Sachdeva, Nutrition project team leader with PATH’s India country program. “The world needs solutions to IDA. It’s too common, causes fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and shortness of breath, and contributes to chronic infections. It’s also dangerous for pregnant women, dramatically raising their risk of uncontrollable bleeding during childbirth. And it can hinder children’s brain development—costing them throughout their lives.”
“PATH’s nutrition team saw the fish in action, and we loved it,” says Megan. “Yet among other challenges, we knew that families sometimes forgot to add it to the pot. We thought—what if we could build on this innovation and attach a source of iron directly to the inside of a pot?”
Adds Ruchika, “User studies in India told us that families prefer to use fuel-efficient cooking devices to save money and time. The pressure cooker fit the job.”
Encouraged, the team started with basic research on how much iron an “enhanced” pot would need to release, what type of iron might work, and more. They also partnered with the India-based company TTK Prestige, one of the most popular and well-respected pressure cooker manufacturers in the world, to develop a consumer-friendly design.
The first prototypes added iron bolts to existing models. “And they were less than appealing,” notes Megan with a laugh. “Depending on how you look at it, they were either ‘bedazzled’ or something akin to an armored jacket.”
Either way, they were unlikely to thrill consumers. “So Prestige kept at it,” says Chandru Kalro, the managing director at TTK Prestige. “First, we improved the aesthetics by welding three iron sheets inside the cooker. Now, we are improving the looks on the outside by eliminating the weld dots. We will also add stickers that give more details on the cooker and the importance of iron.”
A PATH user study also checked in with women living in slums in Delhi, India—where anemia is very common—to learn more about their needs and habits. Among other findings, they confirmed that women use their pressure cookers a lot, know quite a bit about anemia, and know that more iron can help improve health. Most also said they’d pay a premium for a pressure cooker that would add iron to their meals.
“We also know,” says Ruchika, “that a pressure cooker is a better option as it does not require changing the way people cook.”
A sleek and appetizing look
Today, Megan’s cubicle still displays TTK Prestige’s first prototypes, lined up like unusual trophies. Soon, they’ll be joined by a sleek new model with no exterior studs—a discrete interior band of iron will release just the right amount of iron into food as families cook.
Meanwhile, the PATH team and TTK Prestige are working in a cycle: testing the new prototypes in India, checking dozens of different foods to learn how they affect the amount of iron released, and refining a cookbook filled with appetizing recipes.
“This project is a great example of health innovation at its best,” notes Megan. “It’s a strong public-private partnership to build a product that has the potential to not only improve the health and lives of Indian families—but people everywhere, from Africa to North America.”
- Laura Anderson is an editor at PATH.