Healthy Cookware 101: Is Non-Stick Cookware Safe?
The first non-stick pans coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), better known as Teflon, were introduced in the 1960s by DuPont, who marketed this convenient, easy-to-clean cookware as a revolution for the American kitchen. But now, 50 years later, experts are sounding major alarms about the potential dangers of cooking food in non-stick cookware.
It’s no secret that studies have linked perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used in non-stick PTFE coatings, to countless health problems including cancer, infertility, thyroid problems and ADHD in children.
The news of these findings came as a shock to health-minded cooks, many of whom had opted for non-stick cookware for health reasons in the first place — it allowed them to prepare meals with less oil. They had no idea that they were infusing their meals with toxins at the same time.
PFOA has become so incredibly prevalent in our environment that an estimated 98% of the U.S. population is thought to have detectable levels of the chemical in their bodies.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DuPont has been aware of the hazards associated with Teflon since the 1980s, yet intentionally withheld this knowledge from the public. The EPA has called for a manufacturing ban on PFOA and has forced DuPont to pay millions of dollars in fines for hiding evidence about its dangers. Yet for reasons untold, the chemical remains unregulated.
The EPA is sending mixed messages to consumers. Per the EPA website: “Given the scientific uncertainties, EPA has not yet made a determination as to whether PFOA poses an unreasonable risk to the public, and there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA.” Huh? Is this the same agency that is calling for a ban on what it has called a “likely carcinogen?”
Rather than wait on the EPA to make an official recommendation, many people have trashed their non-stick cookware and have gone back to using stainless steel, aluminum, copper or cast iron in the meantime. However, research has shown that many of these types of cookware may pose a threat as well. For example, abrasive cleaning can cause stainless steel to release small amounts of nickel and chromium, which are considered toxic heavy metals.
Confused yet? What kind of cookware is truly safe?
I know how frustrating it can be trying to sort through the various warnings and marketing hype, which is why I thought this quick guide to choosing healthy cookware might come in handy.
SAFEST OPTIONS: Inert, non-reactive materials like ceramic, enamel-coated cast iron, glass or silicone
Ceramic: The healthiest ceramic cookware I’ve come across is the Xtrema brand, which is made by Ceramcor. They offer a full line of moderately priced cookware and bakeware made out of a unique ceramic material that is all natural, 100% non-toxic and completely non-leaching.
Ceramic is breakable, so you do need to exercise care when using it. The Xtrema products, however, are extremely durable — the cooking surface cannot be scratched, even by metal utensils and steel wool, and they can endure temperatures of up to 2,700 degrees F! Additionally, they come with a 50 year warranty that covers all thermal shock breakage.
Enamel-coated cast iron: Le Creuset makes high quality enamel coated cast iron. With proper care, good ceramic or enamel-coated cookware will last a lifetime. It is entirely non-leaching. The main drawbacks with this type of cookware are that it is expensive, requires thorough hand washing and is breakable.
Glass: Glass is inert and affordable, but highly breakable and does not conduct heat evenly. Glass containers are great for storing food, however.
Silicone: Silicone is a synthetic rubber that is now being made into bakeware, spatulas, molds and more. It is the only non-reactive, synthetic non-stick material. It is considered safe up to 428 degrees F. When heated above its safe range, silicone melts, but doesn’t outgas toxic vapors. It also conducts heat less efficiently, therefore, using silicone may require you to increase cooking time.
GOOD OPTIONS: Moderately reactive materials such as stainless steel and cast iron
Stainless steel: Stainless steel is the least reactive metal, and many people consider it the most versatile and affordable healthy cookware option. However, research has shown that once stainless steel has been scratched, as a result of normal scrubbing, small amounts of nickel and chromium may begin to leach.
Cast iron: Cast iron is extremely durable and great to use for sautés, pancakes and quick breads. However, cooking liquids or acidic foods in cast iron can leach iron from the pot, which is undesirable in most cases. The other drawback of cast iron is that it requires special care.
WORST OPTIONS: Highly reactive materials like synthetic non-stick, aluminum and copper
Non-stick cookware The coating used on synthetic non-stick cookware (even the newer types marketed as “greener” or “healthier”) contains plastic polymers, which when heated, emit noxious fumes that contain chemicals that have been proven to be carcinogenic in humans. I urge you to avoid non-stick pans and utensils at all costs.
Aluminum: Studies have linked aluminum exposure to Alzheimer’s and other cognitive problems. Most experts advise avoiding aluminum cookware, including the newer anondized aluminum cookware, as well as aluminum foil completely.
Copper: Copper cookware has a coating that is supposed to prevent copper from coming into contact with food. However, this coating can wear away over time, allowing the copper itself to come into direct contact with food, which can lead to copper toxicity.
If you still have non-stick cookware in your home, I think it’s a good idea to think about investing in healthier alternatives. There are affordable healthy cookware options out there, and considering that it’s something you probably use almost daily, and that it lasts for years, you can’t really go wrong.
What are your thoughts on non-stick cookware? What kind of cookware do you use in your home? Please leave a comment below.
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Article updated on: January 28th, 2013