When I was a preteen horseback riding camp counselor, my fellow counselors and I used to encourage our campers to try horse cookies. This probably sounds worse than it is: They’re made with oats, bran, some other shit and molasses. I think we got in trouble for this but details evade me. Had I known the molasses in these cookies could improve my iron levels, maybe I would have participated in the taste-testing.
My mom takes one spoonful of blackstrap molasses every day in order to improve and sustain her iron levels. She has been anemic since she was a teenager, and her body has a near-impossible time absorbing iron from supplements. Save for eating red meat — not her thing — my mom has tried every solution. When Dr. Dara Thompson, a naturopathic doctor based in San Francisco, recommended that my mom try blackstrap molasses (organic, unsulphered), she went for it.
It worked. It is actually the only thing that has ever worked for my mom’s iron levels. They are now considered “normal” and stable. From SUGAR!
Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct of refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. As with apple cider vinegar and coconut oil, certain devotees believe it can make every ailment better. It’s said to combat stress, relieve PMS and promote skin health. Those seemed hard to test. But because my iron has been low since my teens, yet I’ve never taken iron supplements per many doctors’ recommendations (I don’t know why), I was like, let’s give this the ol’ college try. Besides, horses and horse campers seem to love this stuff.
I got my blood taken at the start of October. After one month of consuming one tablespoon daily of organic, unsulphered blackstrap molasses (which I should tell you is disgusting and can be best described as swallowing a slug of thick, licorice-flavored syrup), my iron count raised from 12, which is considered low according to my height/weight/etc. it’s personal!*, to 29. Given that blackstrap molasses was literally the only thing about my diet or lifestyle that changed in October, I’m going to go ahead and say it worked — inconclusively, unscientifically, purely from a point of reason. Please talk to your doctor about this.
Of note: my ferritin levels went up a tiny bit, from 50 to 53, but these were already in the “normal range,” normal meaning that I likely don’t have trouble storing iron, like my mom does. Ferritin is a blood cell protein that contains iron. This number can help determine how much iron your body is storing and whether or not you have an iron deficiency. Your doctor obviously has to make the call here because if you google “ferritin levels in women,” a “healthy range” is as wide as 18-160 ng/mL, or 18-160 mcg/L.
A nurse read me the results. I’ve yet to get my actual doctor on the phone, so I called up Dr. Dara, my mom’s version of Gwyneth Paltrow, to get her perspective on blackstrap molasses’s ability to raise iron levels.
Dr. Dara confirmed that blackstrap molasses is an iron-rich food. However, she said it’s on the the lower end of the iron-level spectrum. It has a good amount of iron for a food source, but not a lot in comparison to doctor-prescribed iron supplements. The recommended daily allowance is 18 milligrams per day. One serving of blackstrap molasses — one tablespoon — has .9 milligrams of iron. That’s only 4% of of the recommended daily value.
So why might people such as my mom take this instead of a supplement?
“People don’t always absorb iron in the same way,” Dr. Dara told me. “Sometimes people get better results from food-based nutrients than supplements. Molasses may have a stronger effect [in terms of iron absorption] because it’s easier for bodies to assimilate. We’re not sure why that’s true, but clinically, it’s something that we see.”
She told me it’s not the same person-to-person, not to depend on it and that people should continue to have their iron levels checked by their doctors. Also, to be careful.
“You can have too much iron,” she said, although the iron content in molasses is so low that it’s unlikely to cause issues. “Iron deficiency is bad, but an excess of iron is toxic. Have your doctor check your levels before supplementing, then check again every couple of months to ensure it’s in an appropriate range.” Never self-supplement just because you “feel like” your iron levels are low. “You could be missing the real reason you’re tired, which could be harmful. Get checked by a doctor.” (She repeated that a lot so I feel like I have to keep typing it.)
After speaking with her, I emailed Dr. Rupy Aujla, general practitioner and founder of The Doctor’s Kitchen (where he creates recipes with potential health benefits), to get his thoughts. I told him of my mom’s anemia and my previous diagnoses.
“It’s important to first recognize that anemia can have multiple causes,” he wrote me. “It’s not all about taking buttloads of iron to solve the problem, when the cause could be related to malabsorption from the gut, heavy periods, certain medications or even thyroid issues. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking anemia is all about iron.
If iron deficiency is the culprit, then I can understand why certain tonics with blackstrap molasses may have an effect on iron levels. It’s not absorbed as readily as heme iron from meat, but it is a source of ‘non-heme’ dietary iron amongst other plant sources including pulses, lentils and dark leafy greens.”
“Just to be clear,” said Dr. Aujla, “there are no randomized control trials looking at the effect of dietary blackstrap molasses on serum iron levels in the medical literature that I’m aware of. But given its iron content, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think blackstrap molasses could (and probably does) raise iron levels in cases of iron deficiency anemia.”
Which I guess is why it worked with my mom, and why it could potentially explain the raise in my own levels after a short one-month test.
“What I would encourage is a holistic view of everyone’s diet,” Dr. Aujla said. “Think about the delicious array of nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes to improve your iron intake, as well as the tarry (bitter waste) from sugar processing. As a sweetener, I think it’s a fab ingredient for giving a depth of flavor to things like gingerbreads, Korean-style sauces or even Persian dishes.”
…And horse cookies?
*I am not a doctor. I know! Sometimes that shocks people. Please consult your physician if you have any questions about your own iron levels and whether or not you should take supplements. Also note that the numerical reference range of what’s considered “healthy” can change person to person, and depending on your country’s units of measurement. Also, as Dr. Rupy Aujla told me, “Context is really important.” Your doctor looks at a lot other factors beyond just iron levels to determine whether or not you may be deficient.
Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.