Most of us prefer to eat foods that aren’t loaded with harmful chemicals. But what about the toxins that can end up in our chow during the cooking phase?

Depending on what our pots and pans are made of, their age, condition, and how they are used, they can add unhealthy and unwanted substances to our cuisine once popped in the oven or placed on the burner.

What’s important to know? What types of cookware should you look for and what should you avoid?

Nonstick cookware (fluoropolymer coated)

It’s hard to beat the convenience and ease of nonstick cookware. Few cooks enjoy scrubbing pans that are covered in burnt or baked-on gunk.

The potential downside of nonstick cookware depends on what’s in the surface coating. Here’s why:

  • Fluoropolymer coatings are commonly applied to cookware to give it an anti-stick surface. Teflon is the most well-known of these. The main chemical in Teflon is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
  • When heated to high temperatures, PTFE can start to break down and release toxic fumes. Breathing these fumes can be hazardous to both humans and pets (especially birds).
  • Until 2013, Teflon was produced using perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that has been linked to a number of health conditions and is now present in most people’s blood.  Although several non-stick cookware brands currently claim to be PFOA-free or Teflon-free, they may have been made with other fluoropolymers with similar properties, and therefore, similar concerns as PFOA.
  • While PFOA and PFOS have been largely phased out of use in the U.S., these chemicals are only two of the more than 3,000 poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) still used in many consumer goods, including cookware.
  • Some non-stick cookware may indeed be PFAS-free, but it is very difficult to know for sure. It can also be very difficult to find out what the coatings do contain.

If you’re determined to stick with nonstick, you can reduce the risks involved by following a few guidelines:

  • Dispose of old or damaged pans. Get rid of old Teflon or similar nonstick pans (especially those produced before 2013), along with cookware that is scratched, flaking, or peeling.
  • Cook on low-medium heat only and ventilate well. Avoid high heat settings, use of “power” burners, and pan preheating.
  • Purchase quality cookware from reputable companies. Look for high-quality products made to U.S. standards. Avoid low-quality, lightweight products made in countries with lax regulations, as there’s a greater chance they might contain harmful metals or toxins.
  • Hand wash using a mild detergent and nonabrasive scrubber. Never clean a nonstick pan in the dishwasher. The heat and detergent can ruin the surface.
  • Use wooden utensils. Metal utensils can scratch the surface.
  • Store them correctly. Stacking pans can scratch them. To store, put a napkin or other cloth between them.

Alternatives to nonstick cookware

Cast iron. Cast iron is typically inexpensive, lasts forever, and retains heat well. It can also withstand high heat settings. When seasoned correctly, it resists food sticking. Downsides are its heavy weight and tendency to rust when wet, which is avoidable through careful care. It can also react with acidic foods like tomatoes, which can strip a pan of its seasoning and cause excessive amounts of iron to leach into food. Visit What’s Cooking America on using and cleaning cast iron.

Antique cast iron (produced before 1957) can be lighter than the newer stuff and often has a smoother cooking surface, which helps reduce sticking. You can turn your search for vintage cast-iron into a fun adventure by checking out flea markets, auctions, swap and “junk” events, thrift stores, and estate and yard sales. You never know what you may find! Skip pieces that are warped, cracked, or have excessive pitting. For more tips visit the Cast Iron Collector.

Enameled cast iron. A popular alternative to conventional (uncoated) cast iron cookware is the enameled version. Some brands of enameled cast iron offer a nonstick surface, and the cookware is non-reactive, so it’s safe to use with acidic foods. Another advantage is that it doesn’t rust. Although the price tag can be high, enameled cast iron is durable, so can be a great investment.

A word of caution: some enamel glazes used on cast iron can be high in lead and cadmium. As with other coated or glazed cookware, it pays to purchase from reputable companies. Look for products that meet or exceed California Proposition 65, the strictest U.S. standard for lead and cadmium content.

Stainless steel. Similar to cast iron, stainless steel is long lasting. Stainless steel is definitely not a nonstick surface, so using oil or other fat when cooking is crucial. Some studies have indicated increased nickel and chromium levels in acidic foods cooked for long periods in stainless steel.

Carbon steel. Like cast iron, carbon steel requires seasoning to be nonstick. It weighs less than cast iron so can be more easily handled. It rusts easily if not treated properly, but lasts a lifetime when it is.

Ceramic and stoneware. True ceramic cookware is made from clay, quartz, and sand, and contains no metal. It is fired in kilns at high temperatures and is typically glazed with a food-safe coating. Caveat: same as enameled cast iron. Only purchase products from manufacturers that have strong standards for safety and toxicity. Some products produced overseas have been found to have high lead levels.

A word about “green” cookware

Several cookware lines have appeared on the market in recent years that market themselves as “green.” In most cases, they are metal-based pans with a ceramic-like coating. The nonstick coating is allegedly free of PTFE and PFOA. Unfortunately, my own experience with one of these products was not a good one. Even when following the manufacturer’s recommendations for care, the nonstick coating wore off quickly. Apparently, durability for this type of product is a common problem.

Bottom line

  • Look for cookware that is long lasting, safe to use, and reliable.
  • Familiarize yourself with which types of cookware are best suited for which types of cooking.
  • Follow directions for cookware use and care.
  • Lastly, practice waste reduction and reuse — purchase only the cookware that you really need and donate, recycle or dispose responsibly of ones you no longer want.

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