Abstract Iron absorption was measured from three West African meals in fourteen subjects, using the extrinsic tag method. The staple foods consisted of local pearl millet ( Pennisetum typhoides) or imported broken rice. The meals were contaminated by iron from soil residues and/or by dust and up to 60% of the nonheme iron did not exchange with the added inorganic radiotracer. Nonheme iron absorption was very low particularly with the pearl millet based meals. The iron absorption was 4.8% for the pearl millet “couscous” meal, 1.2% for the pearl millet gruel meal and 10.4% for rice and fish meal. The quantity of total iron absorbed was 326 μg, 69 μg and 279 μg, respectively. The corresponding bioavailable iron density was 28, 5 and 22 μg/100 Kcal. The results suggest that iron absorption from West African meals is insufficient to cover the physiological requirements of iron of large part of the population.