When my family adopted an abandoned cockatiel we took a crash course in bird care and stumbled on a startling fact—fumes from overheated nonstick cookware are lethal for birds. We now had our very own canary in a coal mine. And I began to wonder, what are those highly toxic Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) fumes doing to my two young daughters? Here’s why we tossed the Teflon, and the pointers I picked up for cooking with sticky pans.
Pet birds aside, when an EPA Science Advisory Board recommends upgrading the category of a substance, PFOA in this case, from “possible human carcinogen” to “likely human carcinogen” I take notice. 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.
The associated health risks are so undeniable that DuPont, the maker of Teflon, has voluntarily committed to eliminate the sources of exposure to PFOA from their manufacturing operations and products by 2015. (A gallant effort, although it should be noted the EPA accuses DuPont of failing to notify the agency when two of five babies born to plant employees in 1981 had eye and face defects similar to those found in newborn rats exposed to PFOA.)
Specifically, the health risks look like this: 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.
Four organs or tissues in the immune system and at least nine types of cells that regulate immune function are targets of PFOA. Thus far, scientists have been unable to find a level of PFOA that doesn’t damage the immune system. Doses given to effected lab animals were minimal—and less, relatively, than levels found in children.
OK, so that’s depressing. The good news is that there are little steps that we can take to prevent PFOA fumes in our kitchens—little steps that involve things like cast iron pans and proper searing methods to prevent food from sticking. Here’s the lowdown:
Cast Iron Pans
This may seem counter-intuitive, 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. They require some extra maintenance but they are inexpensive and add a little iron to your diet as well.
Enameled Cast Iron
Think of 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.
Professional style, shiny stainless steel pots and pans entered the domestic kitchen lexicon, and that’s a fine thing. A decent quality stainless pan usually has an aluminum or copper core to help in heat distribution, a step up from a pure stainless pan that doesn’t heat up evenly. These can be pretty pricey, but require very little maintenance and have one of the slickest surfaces in the non-Teflon category.
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, hormone disruption or hyperthyroidism.
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.
If you have read this far, here’s your bonus: GreenPans! 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. (Take note, however, that nanotechnology safety is open to some debate.) It has earned a Good Housekeeping Seal, has been endorsed by hunky celebrity chef Todd English, and the 6-piece set is relatively affordable. Check them out here.