Dangers of Cookware, Safe Alternatives
I remember the first time I cooked eggs in a Teflon skillet, without a lick of butter those eggs slipped and scooted all around the pan like kids on sleds. Non-stick cookware promised an easy clean-up and freedom from fat, but eventually a dark cloud floated over the land of Teflon and its safety has come into serious question.
As anyone with a bird in the house can attest, non-stick cookware can be lethal to flying friends–even DuPont, Teflon’s maker, has a brochure about not using non-stick cookware near birds. And although DuPont promises that Teflon is safe for humans, the whole canary-in-the-coalmine scenario is hard to ignore. If those toxic Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) fumes can kill birds in a few minutes, what can they do to us?
PFOA is a synthetic chemical that is used in the manufacturing of traditional nonstick cookware coatings. The coating itself is called polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE)–most commonly known by its trademark name Teflon. Although PFOA isn’t present in the finished Teflon, it can be formed as a gas when the coating is subjected to high heat and begins to degrade. Some reports suggest that the heat doesn’t need to be that high for PFOA to be released. An EPA Science Advisory Board recommends upgrading the category of a substance, PFOA in this case, from “possible human carcinogen” to “likely human carcinogen.”
The associated health risks are so undeniable that DuPont has voluntarily committed to eliminate the sources of exposure to PFOA from their manufacturing operations and products by 2015. The EPA classifies PFOA as carcinogenic in animals, causing testicular, pancreatic, mammary and liver tumors in rats. Workers exposed to PFOA have increased risks of dying from or needing treatment for cancers of the pancreas and male reproductive tract. Numerous studies have shown that PFOA alters reproductive hormones in the male, causing increased levels of estrogen and abnormal testosterone regulation and that PFOA or chemicals that break down into PFOA damage the thyroid gland. I could go on and on, but I think you get my point.
So, Teflon’s out. Another concern is straight aluminum. Aluminum conducts heat beautifully, but direct contact with food is undesirable. It’s a soft and highly reactive metal that can leach into food, especially when acidic ingredients are cooked and stored. For example, tomato sauce has been shown to contain 3-6 mg aluminum (per 100 g serving) after cooking in aluminum pans–ingesting aluminum may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Proponents of aluminum cookware say it’s debatable how many aluminum molecules get into food, but many scientists and doctors say it’s a serious health risk. So…here are the cookware materials that are safe to use:
Cookware made of anodized aluminum was made famous by Caphalon–it is dark gray-black and has a smooth surface, but doesn’t feel coated. The electro-chemical anodizing process locks in the cookware’s base metal, aluminum, which makes it non-porous and non-reactive. The aluminum is unavailable to leach into food, and many cooks consider it an ideal non-stick and scratch-resistant cooking surface. Just know that the anodization can breakdown over time, especially with the frequent cooking of acidic foods such as pasta sauce, well-water use or dishwasher’s caustic soaps.
This may seem odd to those not in the know, but those charming heavy cast iron pans are beautifully non-stick when properly seasoned (cookware-speak for lightly oiled and baked). They hold heat wonderfully and are a joy to cook with–I’m pretty sure they’re the best kept secret in the cupboard. They require some extra maintenance but they are inexpensive and add a little iron to your diet as well.
Layered cookware is called clad–think of those lovely, and costly, All-Clad pots and pans. Typically, stainless steel surrounds a sandwich of other metals, such as aluminum or copper. The inert stainless steel provides the cooking surface, while the aluminum or copper improves the heat conductivity.
Enameled Cast Iron
Picture those dreamy many-hued sets of Le Crueset–more expensive than cast iron, but also more non-stick than plain cast iron and don’t require seasoning. If you need an excuse to splurge, I’d say you have it. Iron Chef superstar Mario Batali has also come out with a line of enamel cast iron cookware that is lovely on the eye, and about half the cost of the classic Le Crueset.
Glass is the most inert of all cookware, meaning that it doesn’t leach metals or other ingredients into the food.
This line of cookware boasts a new non-stick material called Thermolon. It is being billed as the first environment-friendly, PFOA-free, PTFE-free non-stick cookware and uses a ceramic-based nano non-stick technology. It has earned a Good Housekeeping Seal, has been endorsed by hunky celebrity chef Todd English, and the 6-piece set is relatively affordable. But take note, nanotechnology safety is open to debate.
Stainless is a very good choice for healthy cooking because it is one of the most inert metals. It reportedly does leach a small amount of nickel. One drawback is that it doesn’t conduct heat evenly, so consider stainless “clad,” described above, for this purpose.
Bring out the old wok–or get a new one if yours ended up at your last garage sale. Cheap and easy, a cooking tradition as old as stir-frying in a wok is worth its weight in gold. Make sure it is a carbon steel or cast iron version; some western woks are coated with Teflon.
Stick-Free Cooking Tips
1. Non-Teflon pans require a small bit of oil–but the few extra calories are better than, say, a poisoned bird or cancer.
2. The stick-free trick for non-Teflon pans is temperature. The pan needs to be hot! If food is added to a too-cool pan it doesn’t instantly sear–searing results in the release of water, which prevents sticking.
3. Use common sense when considering searing: don’t crowd the pan, heat the pan in proportion to how much food you are cooking, and remove the food from the fridge for a bit before cooking to take the chill off.
4. Also remember this tip from many a chef: when searing food, don’t flip it too soon. The food needs to attain a brown and slightly crisp surface before flipping or it will, yes, stick.
When you are ready to replace your Teflon pans with safer versions, know that recycling is possible! Locate a metal recycling business–these pans are categorized as “dirty aluminum” which pays out less than aluminum, but at least the material is recycled.
Next up I’ll write about the joys of cast iron–until then, I’m curious to know what kind of pans do you love to cook with?