The department store lights beam brightly down into the cookware aisle. You can feel beads of sweat forming on your forehead as all the large boxes of cookware sets loom down on you from the shelves, and you realize you are fully unprepared for this purchase.
Which do you choose? Words like “leaching,” “chemicals,” and “cancer” float through your mind. But really, what are the fears? What are the facts?
Is Teflon safe?
Let’s start with the most obvious no: Teflon. This shiny non-stick contender is produced using a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. This chemical, when heated past unsafe temperatures of about 500 degrees (i.e. an empty pan being heated on medium high for only a few minutes) produces toxic fumes that cause parakeets to drop dead, and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. Scientists have even named it… Polymer Flu Fever.
On top of that, some laboratory experiments on animals show that in high doses, PFOA causes cancer, liver damage, birth defects, and weakened immune system.
As far as human studies go, it’s suggested that workers from manufacturing plants (who are exposed to more of the chemical) have a higher a risk for testicular, thyroid, and kidney cancer.
However, we must note that this particular study showed purely correlation, and that causation cannot be inferred since other lifestyle choices which may affect health cannot be separated from the equation.
Is Aluminium safe?
Contender number two: Aluminium. Aluminium is a soft metal which heats quickly but also leaches easily, especially with acidic foods like tomatoes.
Initial health concerns about aluminium stemmed from the discovery of a large quantity of it in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients (again, far from causal), but evidence since then has been contradictory.
While it is toxic to the human immune system, a very small amount of ingested aluminium is actually absorbed by the body. Patients with kidney disease, for whom the aluminium is not efficiently removed from the body, are known to develop bone or brain diseases.
We do know for sure that aluminium prevents the absorption of phosphorous in the stomach, which is an essential nutrient for strong bones. So, if you have a choice, probably best to err on the side of caution and not purchase aluminium cookware.
Anodised aluminium, wherein an electric current is passed through the aluminium to strengthen the surface, may be a safer option, as long as the surface remains in tact.
Now let’s move into the healthier choices, starting with stainless steel. Stainless steel is a blend of metals, generally iron, nickel, chromium and molybdum.
The (generally) chromium surface reforms quickly when scratched, and this blend of alloys is considered chemically non reactive and thus very little, if any leaching occurs. It is worth noting as well that chromium is an essential mineral for the human body, unlike aluminium, and isn’t toxic in small quantities.
However, if one wishes to avoid leaching of said substances, avoiding highly acidic foods such as tomatoes, wine, and citrus fruits is probably a good idea.
Remember all those cheesy baking dishes grandma used to have? Well, she had the right idea with ceramics. These are non-metal solids with a variety of uses. Essentially made from clay, 100% ceramic is chemically inert and therefore will not leach into foods.
This is also true of stone and glass cookware, which are also very safe materials to forge pots and pans from. However, ceramic coatings may be prone to scratching or chipping, exposing more toxic substances underneath like aluminium.
Also, be wary of poor quality synthetic coatings (from countries with less regulated industries for such products) which may contain lead.
Next, we have cast iron. With proper seasoning (a process of coating in oil and baking at high temperatures) and care, cast iron is also generally safe and doesn’t leach anything toxic into food.
If iron does sneak into your food, at least it is also an essential nutrient that may even provide health benefits for people who are iron deficient.
Again, acidic foods will promote the leaching of iron into food. It’s worth noting that too much iron is also a slim possibility, children under three being the most susceptible.
Enameled cast iron
In a brilliant combination of cast iron and ceramic, enameled cast iron is also a great option for cookware. With the durability and lifespan of traditional cast iron, and the non-leaching and non-stick enameled surface, I’m not sure how you can go wrong with enameled cast iron.
With a similar chemical makeup to cast iron, carbon steel is another healthy option for cookware. While cast iron is composed of about ninety-seven percent iron and three percent carbon, carbon steel contains generally only one percent carbon, and is a bit less brittle and more malleable than traditional cast iron.
These pans are thin, light, and heat up quickly so are perfect for a quick stir fry. However, again like their traditional counterpart, carbon steel also requires seasoning before use.
Alternatives to plastic
Aside from pots and pans, what other materials should be avoided in the kitchen? In one word: Plastic.
Utensils, tupperware and anything else coming into contact with food should ideally be forged from something a bit more natural: glass, wood or bamboo are all great options.
Bamboo in particular is durable, looks great, has a relatively low carbon footprint, and has natural anti-microbial properties.
Hard plastic contains the industrial chemical Bisphenol A or BPA, which has been linked to a myriad of disturbing health problems, as it is a developmental, reproductive, and neural toxin.
Studies have shown links to cancers, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes and hyperactivity. Be especially cautious with heating plastic, as this increases the transference of chemicals.
Foods which are fatty or acidic will also encourage transference of unwanted chemicals. Reheating last night’s spaghetti in the plastic tupperware in the microwave: probably not the best idea. I also try to avoid take out from places I know put the hot food into single use plastic containers.
Silicon’s popularity as utensils and baking accessories is on the rise. Chemically, it is considered inert as well, although it hasn’t been around long enough to acquire evidence of being unsafe.
a general rule, undesirable substances will be less likely to transfer into your food if you take proper care of your cookware. Don’t use metal scouring pads like steel wool on them and try to keep their surfaces scratch-free by using non-abrasive utensils like bamboo. Also, do read the proper care instruction pamphlets accompanying any new cookware.
With so many options when it comes to shopping for the kitchen, it helps to know which products are the safest to be eating out of. No one wants a sprinkle of Teflon flakes or a pinch of aluminum in their dinner.