You may have heard or read about non-stick pans being less than safe, even highly toxic.
We spend so much time, energy and money on keeping our food clean and green, so why ruin all the good work by cooking it a vessel that is leaching heavy metals into our food – potentially contributing to disease.
How to Choose the Best Cookware, for Your Health’s Sake
Like with so many things these days there’s much confusion over cookware – which pots and pans are safe and which ones aren’t, so I thought I’d take a look at what the safest options are for us to be cooking with and how many pieces do we really need.
Personally I use a cast iron skillet for just about everything. Everything that needs a spatula or tongs rather than a spoon to cook that is. I cook omelets, tofu, tempeh, fish, dry roast my nuts and seeds, seriously pretty much everything gets cooked in it. It lives on the stove and I just wipe it out with a kitchen cloth or paper towel if it needs it but more often than not it doesn’t, and this is because it has been ‘well seasoned’. This is a term given when the pan has been used for a while and develops a coating of polymerized oil, which not only turns it into a nice non-stick surface, but also acts as a barrier between the iron and your food. It allows it to cook just beautifully getting a nice crust on your food without sticking. That means the searing and frying qualities improve with time.
The cast iron pan stays on top of my stove with one of those mesh shields over it (that you use to prevent oil splattering when cooking at higher temperatures), to stop anything untoward falling or getting in when I’m not using it. I love this pan and have given one to most members of my family. Because I love them also. We’ve been together a long time now (the pan and I) and it only cost me about $10 in a camping shop. Actually I think I bought it for a camping trip. They are still cheap and available in most kitchen shops and camping stores. They just keep getting better with age.
I also have three stainless steel pots. One really big one, I guess around 20 litres. I use this one to make big batches of veggie stock that I freeze. My father gave me this one – he used to cook the crabs he caught in it when we were kids. I have another that’s about 5 litres that I use for all my soups, Dahl’s and curry’s and also for cooking grains in, and a smaller one I use for boiling eggs or beetroot, or for times when I just need a smaller pot. I use this one the least and probably don’t really need it but when I’m making lots of different dishes say for a party or cooking baby food, then it comes in handy. I also have a wok, but I have to say I only use this for stir-fries and the very occasional time I deep fry.
The cast iron pan stays on top of my stove with one of those mesh shields over it, to stop anything untoward falling or getting in when I’m not using it. I love this pan and have given one to most members of my family.
I recently acquired a stainless steel pressure cooker and it’s pretty amazing. I can make stock in 15-30 minutes instead of 2 hours (but it’s not always quite big enough for my batches of stock) and it cuts down the cooking time of dried legumes and grains in half. So if you’re eating a lot of legumes and/or grains or like to make one pot meals, then seriously think about getting one of these beauties. Cutting down on cooking time is of course saving energy (electricity or gas) as well, so a greener choice.
Non-stick pans that came out a few decades ago were sold to us as the next big thing. They allowed us to melt cheese in them without having to scrub the pan clean afterwards. (Who melts cheese in a pan anyway? The person who is doing this is probably melting it in a microwave.) So what’s wrong with them?
Non-stick cookware is sold under different trade names like Teflon, Excaliber, and Silverstone, the coatings are made with a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which itself is made from perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA has been linked to male infertility, pregnancy difficulties, high cholesterol and thyroid problems. This toxic stuff is awful of cause and needs to be avoided at all costs.
Sometimes the manufacturers get a bit sneaky and say their pans contain no Teflon, but they’re still coated with PTFE, so it’s still Teflon. PTFE coatings have been found to emit six different toxic chemicals and are linked to something called ‘Teflon flu’, characterized by headaches, backaches, and chills. We once heard these pan were ok as long as we don’t scratch them. Not true. These pans only need to be heated to a mere 40oC to leach their toxic chemicals. PTFE-based coatings emit ultrafine particulates when heated to 240°F. To put that into context when frying meat, a pan can reach anywhere from 200oC° to 245° – and PFOA is released when the pans reach 360°C. To let you know how easy it is to get your pan that hot – you can reach 390°C after preheating your pan for 3 minutes and 20 seconds.
Sometimes the manufacturers get a bit sneaky and say their pans contain no Teflon, but they’re still coated with PTFE, so it’s still Teflon.
PTFE-based nonstick coatings are sold under a number of brand names besides those mentioned above, so avoid anything advertised as Fluron, Supra, Greblon, Xylon, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph, Unison, Swiss Diamond, and T-Fal. This includes cookware as well as small appliances like toaster ovens.
We’ve all heard about the link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s and many of us have thrown out our aluminium pans in favour of non stick pot and pans. Was this a good idea? Is aluminium that bad? Yes it is. It’s a great heat conductor and it evenly distributes heat without the high price tag but this is where its virtues end. Aluminum has been linked to bone and brain damage and has been found to interfere with the central nervous system. Some studies have shown that it does cause cancer in estrogen receptors in human breast tissue. In cookware, it reacts with highly acidic or salty foods, imparting a yucky metallic flavor to your food.
Some studies have shown that when heated and in contact with an acid (like tomato sauce), potentially dangerous aluminum salts can leech into the food. Allowing the aluminium to ‘touch’ your food is where the problems begin. So manufacture’s now ‘anodize’ the aluminum. This happens by dipping a piece of aluminum cookware into an acid bath, and running an electrical current through it. This causes ‘controlled rusting’ which forms a hard coating that prevents food from reacting with the metal. In theory it’s a good idea, to coat the aluminium, but repeated exposure to acidic foods like tomato sauce can cause ‘de-anodization’ which means we’re back to where we started – having the aluminum touching your food. But really, you’d need to be doing a lot of slow cooking of acidic foods. And some leading manufacturers of anodized cookware still add PTFE and PFOA/Teflon-type toxic nonstick material to its coatings.
Some studies have shown that when heated and in contact with an acid (like tomato sauce), potentially dangerous aluminum salts can leech into the food. Allowing the aluminium to ‘touch’ your food is where the problems begin.
Most aluminium pots and pans these days are anodized, so you’ll rarely find a straight up aluminium piece. If you’re careful not to use any metal utensils in an anodized aluminum pan – because many are only anodized on the surface, and the oxide coating can possibly scratch and lead to aluminum leaching – and you don’t slow cook acidic foods for too long too often, you should be ok with this type of pot. So if you’re going this way, be sure to look for very high quality anodized cookware, which doesn’t have a chemical nonstick coating. These brands are obviously more expensive – but worth it for your health. Le Cruset is at the top of your wish list here but there are also less pricey alternatives available.
Sure they’re heavy – so leave it on the stove if you’re using it all the time. This cookware is for those of use who appreciate even heating, reliable heat retention, and extreme durability – without the chemicals. This stuff has been used for centuries.
There are some concerns about cast iron leaching actual iron into your food. Some say that this is a good thing—since many people are anemic, or iron-deficient. But there’s also the argument that you could be ingesting too much iron, since excess levels of iron in the blood can be a problem. You can reduce this significantly by simply keeping your cast iron well seasoned. The seasoning is basically a layer of crystallized (polymerized is the technical term) oil, which sits on top of the actual iron itself (and in between it and your food). Also, it’s best to avoid cooking things, which are very wet—like sauces—in cast iron, as well as things, which are highly acidic—like tomatoes. This not only draws iron out of the pan and into your food, but also can break down your seasoning, and you really don’t want that to happen. So keep cast iron for your skillet (flat pan) and use it for short term cooking only. If it’s saucy, wet, or acidic, use a different piece of cookware made from either enamel-coated cast iron or stainless steel.
Enamel Coated Cast Iron or Steel
Enamel-coated cast iron skillets have all the benefits of cast iron, without the possibility of the metal reacting to foods and leaching. And, they are low-maintenance, as they’re naturally non-stick and non-porous without any seasoning to maintain. High-quality enamel coating is non-reactive and safe for all types of cooking. Lesser-quality enamel may contain lead, or may chip, allowing less than safe material underneath the coating to leach into food. They have the same heat distribution and other benefits of traditional cast iron, but the porcelain enamel makes them easier to clean, and without the toxic properties of Teflon. And they are more expensive.
Many glass dishes aren’t safe top use on the stovetop, but for baking glass is an essential part of your non-toxic cookware. Pyrex is still one of the most popular makers of glass bake ware, still uses the same soda lime base that it developed in the 1940s, and it’s also reliable and durable enough that you can use pieces your Grandma gave you. I sometimes find gorgeous pieces in vintage and second hand shops – at great prices.
The excellent heat conduction properties of copper make it an obvious choice for cookware; it’s especially responsive to changes in temperature from the heat source, so when you turn down the burner just prior to your dinner burning, the pans can adjust. But they also offer the potential for metals leech into your food, so choosing a pan that’s lined with stainless steel. Again use wooden utensils so you don’t scratch the stainless steel, which can also leech.
Ceramic Cookware and Bake Ware
The beauty of this type of cookware is that it can go right from the freezer to the oven or stovetop safely. The interior ceramic glaze is non-toxic and the non-reactive and pieces usually come with a 50-year guarantee. Great for pies, casseroles, soups, curry and anything else you want to make bulk of and freeze, or not. This type of cookware isn’t expensive and again looks out for it in second hand shops.
As always, buy the best you can afford. Quality matters. Stainless steel is made up not just of carbon steel, but other metals like chromium and nickel, so you want the highest-quality stainless steel, and this means one that contains less of the cheap heavy metals as filler. The less ‘nickel’ the better, as it is toxic and can leach from the steel into your food. High-quality stainless steel will have some levels of nickel but it will be constructed in a way that makes it resistant to corrosion and leaching or reactivity. To be on the safe side though, avoid cooking foods for a long time or storing acidic foods in stainless steel, as acids are what can react with the metal causing it to leach.
Stainless steel is a great choice for most types of cooking, but if you’re going to be cooking a giant batch of something with a tomato base, like chili or tomato sauce, simmered on the stove for hours on end, then I’d probably suggest going with an enamel-coated stock pot. All Clad is generally considered to be the best when it comes to stainless steel, and rightly so. They’ve been around for ages and deserve their solid reputation. Their products are well constructed with heat-conducting aluminum sandwiched between layers of quality magnetic steel. On the pricey end.
This old favourite takes a similar approach to non-stick coatings, covering its cookware with a product called SandFlow, which is made without PTFE or PFOA (both toxic carinogens). Even better, some coatings are applied and attached using water instead of the dodgy, toxic solvent. Avoid metal utensils and the pans will stay in good condition for years, and they are three times more durable than ceramic-based surfaces. These are affordable cookware. Also checkout retro and second hand stores.
A lot of the equipment used in baking these days is non- stick, and we know what that means – toxic once heated. Non-stick baking dishes, cookie sheets, muffin trays and cake tins give off dangerous chemicals into the air when they’re heated. These are to be avoided. What about aluminum?
Regular aluminum that isn’t coated with nonstick chemicals isn’t ideal, but doesn’t mean you have to toss your aluminum just yet. The real danger with aluminum bake ware is that it can leach the toxic heavy metal into your food—but you’re only at risk for that when it’s touching the aluminum. So, for cookie sheets and muffin tins at least, an easy fix is to use parchment paper or reusable silicone baking mats, unbleached paper cupcake liners or silicone muffin tin liners. Just make sure the aluminum isn’t touching your food.
I love glass pieces and enamel-coated stoneware for baking, with some stainless steel items thrown in there too. Pyrex glass dishes are always a good choice for baking. Stainless steel is your best bet for cookie and baking sheets.
Again Pyrex is a good choice also for baking sheets, pie and quiche dishes or enamel coated.
For a muffin tin, really any aluminium one that’s not non-stick will do. You can get stainless steel ones but check the quality to ensure there’s little nickel. They’re expensive so you want to know you [re getting your monies worth.
Most round cake pans are made with aluminum so either line them with non-bleached paper, or use a stainless tell one.
Spring-form pans are also usually made with aluminum, so either line them with non-bleached paper or get a silicon spring-form with a glass base.
A stainless steel roasting pan—as opposed to aluminum or nonstick—is a great piece to have in your kitchen.
So that’s it – the low down on toxic cookware and just what pieces you need in your kitchen for what.
Remember to recycle old pans by using them for camping, for the kids’ play kitchen or even to plant your herbs op flowers in, or you can always pass your old cookware on.
Having non-toxic cookware is all part of having a cleaner and greener life. The less chemicals the better – for you and planet and our meals.
With love and chemical free cooking,