Your cookware could be a health hazard.
If you want to stir up controversy, get a bunch of foodies together to talk pots and pans. Some will say toss the Teflon and go with a healthier option, like ceramic. Others deny any controversy and say there’s no reason to give up the ease of non-stick.
The truth is, while we throw the word Teflon around, most of us don’t even know that it’s Dupont’s trademark name for a synthetic coating that’s been in use since the forties. It’s made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a waxy solid that which creates the slickness. The problem is with another chemical used in the manufacturing process: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid disease, reduced fertility in people and, in lab animals, cancer. Teflon is still widely used in cookware (though the technology has improved, the essential non-stick ingredient is the same) but many manufacturers, including Cuisinart, All-Clad and Calphalon, have developed their own proprietary PTFE-based formulas with their own names, such as titanium or diamond-reinforced PTFE.
Which means all non-sticks raise the same sticky question about health, and there’s little agreement on safety. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the amount of PFOA in Teflon-coated products is nominal, and the American Cancer Society states that Teflon itself is not suspected of causing cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency however, has been investigating PFOA because, as it states, the chemical stays in bodies for a very long time and causes developmental effects in lab animals. But the EPA also says that at this time, consumers don’t need to take any steps to reduce exposure to PFOA. Huh?
Among the non-stick defenders is Hugh Rushing, executive vice president of the Cookware Manufacturers Association. “Properly used pans pose absolutely no danger,” he contends. He does, however, concede that if a pan is overheated, the polymers in the nonstick can give off fumes that can may you feel flu-like....and have proved fatal to pet birds.
That’s enough to alarm Kathy Kaehler, celebrity trainer and food coach, whose clients include Lisa Rinna, Angie Harmon, and David Justice. “Teflon worries me,” she says. “If it’s a health hazard to birds, what about people?”
In any case, if a non-stick coating pan gets scratched, little flakes of the coating can end up in your food and the surface won’t be as slippery. Consumer Reports recommends discarding damaged pans and—since you’ll likely be replacing pans every two to three years—buying inexpensive brands, of which there are many in the $30-$40 range. Meanwhile, to give nonstick a longer shelf life, don’t scrub with anything abrasive or use metal utensils that can scrape the surface.
If you decide to go a greener route, there are non-toxic alternatives that claim to be non-stick. Earth Pan and Cuisinart GreenGourmet sell sleek looking sets made of hard-anodized (hardened aluminum) cookware. But if you scratch the surface you expose the aluminum, which has been linked to Alzheimers. Scanpan, Green Earth, Emeril Lagasse, and Extrema make ceramic-glazed cookware that can take high heat and won’t scratch, though ceramics tend to be heavy.
There are always the classics, of course. Cast iron is Kaehler’s top choice. Yes, it’s a bit high maintenance, she admits, since you have to season the pans first (soak the pan in oil for a day, then bake in the oven till dry) and instead of washing with soap after each use, fill with hot water and wipe out with a towel. Stainless steel is also still a great option, indestructible and safe at high temps, though you’ll be stuck scraping bits off the bottom. So what do the chefs in busy restaurant kitchens use? “What they’ve always used,” Rushing says. “Very abused aluminum pans with lots of oil and fats.”
Sometimes it’s better not to ask.
- US Environmental Protection Agency
- Xtrema Ceramic Cookware
- Scanpan Cookware
- Fatal to Pet Birds
- Journal of Medical Case Reports