What kind of cookware do you use? When was the last time you thought about it? This week, as part of our Full Year of Resolutions, we are talking about Tip #35, using the right cookware for your health. You might be thinking, why are you talking about cookware at More Than Healthy? We chose this topic because here at More Than Healthy, we care about everything that affects your health. We don’t just talk about the food you eat (or even more importantly, the food you don’t eat), or your sleep, or your physical activity. There are so many things that factor into optimal health! And believe it or not, the right cookware is one of them.
Can our pots and pans be poisonous?
If you know me, you know that I love to cook. Making delicious, healthy food for friends and family is one of my love languages! (Check out my repository of healthy recipes here.) When it came to my cookware, I used to just care about function and price. How well does it conduct heat? Do foods stick? What is the cost compared to the function? I loved the functionality of Teflon and had plenty of it in my kitchen, so when I first heard that Teflon was unhealthy, I was pretty sad about it. But Teflon is prone to chipping and peeling and mixing with the food we were cooking, meaning we were actually consuming a toxic material as we ate. It was hard to throw all my Teflon cookware out, but it simply wasn’t worth the cost of our health.
Since then I’ve learned that in addition to the dangerous chemical PTFE found in Teflon, cookware can leach heavy metals like nickel, aluminum, copper, and hundreds of BPA from plastics. All of this can cause serious health problems. I felt the need to sound a warning sign and share with others all I’ve learned about this over the years.
Cookware ahead of its time
About 15 years ago, David came home with a whole new set of cookware he’d purchased from a tradeshow. He was very excited, and I could tell he’d spent a lot of money on it. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “Shouldn’t the cookware decisions be my domain?” I already had my favorite cookware, and now I had to throw that out to fit this new set in my cupboards? I tried to fake it, but David could tell I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. As it turns out, that was one the best purchases David has made. He was way ahead of the game when it came to safe cookware.
We’ll talk about that set, and why it was such a good choice, in a bit. But first, let’s take a look at the most common problems with certain types of cookware and why you should avoid them. We’ll look at why reducing toxins by using the right cookware can make a real difference in your health long-term. We’ll also share some insights on the best types of cookware currently on the market, and what you should consider when purchasing it.
Cookware to Avoid
Teflon, also known as PTFE (because it contains the chemical Polytetrafluoroethylene) is probably the worst offender. It is such a great nonstick cookware – basically a cook’s dream! – until you realize that it’s releasing toxins every time you cook with it. In the 1950s, they started adding perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a man-made chemical that helps resist sticking, heat, water, stains, and grease. PFOA works well because it’s so stable. But that also means it lasts a really long time in the environment, and in people.
The products used to make Teflon are linked to many diseases and have been scientifically proven to cause cancer, liver disease, thyroid issues, and growth issues. It accumulates in the body over time, and it is also present in the air we breathe and the water we drink. People with high levels of exposure experienced significant health issues, including birth defects in babies.
Thankfully, PFOAs were taken out of Teflon in 2013. The challenge is that they were replaced by a chemical called GenX, which is very similar in structure to PFOA. According to a study conducted by the EPA, GenX is nearly as toxic as what it replaced. And it’s complicated, because you need to look for PFAS-free, not just PFOA-free cookware, as there are different versions with different toxic chemicals in them.
The bottom line is that anything with Teflon needs to be avoided. If you have any of these old pans, do yourself a favor and get rid of them right away.
Teflon is bad, but I think aluminum might even be worse. It’s in so many pans because it’s affordable and a great heat conductor. However, it is also a soft and highly reactive metal that can leach into your food.
Did you know that aluminum has consistently been in the top 200 health-jeopardizing toxins by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services? Aluminum is a known neurotoxin that can inhibit up to 200 biological functions. It’s believed to be linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, etc. Aluminum is bio-accumulative, meaning it will accumulate in the body over time. Not only that, but aluminum cookware has been found to release cadmium, copper and arsenic into food as well.
You might have heard the debates about aluminum in pharmaceutical products, particularly antiperspirants, and the possible link to Alzheimer’s and cancer. Aluminum salts are the ingredients that prevent sweating. Research now shows that antiperspirants can cause aluminum to accumulate in breast tissue. Additional studies are needed to prove the connection between that accumulation and specific disease, but I’ve read enough about the frightening effects of aluminum, that I try to stay away from it. I’ve even started using parchment paper instead of aluminum foil when I roast my veggies because of all we’ve learned about this harmful product.
Copper is beautiful, and a great conductor of heat. It’s also very reactive, especially if you cook with acidic foods, and it can leach into what you’re cooking. Although we require small quantities of copper for our health, overexposure causes a whole host of health issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. High doses of copper can damage the liver and kidneys.
Many different types of cookware and bakeware are manufactured with lead. The lead is there for a reason – to make a product more rigid. It makes cookware less likely to break and have more shock resistance. But lead is also likely to leach into your food. It’s probably not surprising to you that lead is unhealthy, and it’s connected to a laundry list of potential health effects. Problems include headaches, abdominal pain, fatigue, memory loss, irritability, depression, and miscarriage. These symptoms often occur slowly, so lead poisoning is easily overlooked.
But the effect lead can have on babies and children is especially scary. Even small exposures to lead in babies can affect behavior and intelligence. Children under six are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, especially when it comes to brain development. Avoid feeding your kids from lead-based cookware the same way you’d avoid feeding them paint chips.
An additional note: Be aware that any cookware labeled “for decoration only” is labeled so for a reason, and may contain toxins like lead.
The right cookware for your health
That cookware David bought for me 15 years ago was Kitchen Craft Waterless Cookware, made from stainless steel. It cooks efficiently, cleans up easily, and still looks brand new 15 years later because of the quality of the material it’s made from. It is one of the safest cookwares available, and I’m so glad David made that purchase. Who knows how many chemicals and heavy metals we’ve avoided since then?
Stainless steel is a steel alloy that has at least 10.5% chromium. It is resistant to corrosion. To enhance its qualities, alloying elements like nickel, molybdenum, titanium, and copper are added to it. There are more than 150 stainless steel grades based on the combination of metals used.
High-grade stainless steel is a great cookware choice, but beware…not all stainless steel is created equal. Many companies are using scrap metal and calling it stainless steel. The scrap metal could be from anywhere and often is from China. Yikes! The type and quality of the steel matters – a lot.
What the numbers mean
When you shop for stainless steel, you will see numbers like 200, 304, 316, an 430. The higher the number, the stronger, longer-lasting the steel is that it’s made from. Higher numbers also have less nickel content. Stainless steel is considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as safe for food contact as long as it has at leat 16% chromium.
Sometimes, the flatware grading system is also used to describe 304 SS as 18/10 and 18/8. The first number pertains to the percentage amount of chromium while the second number is the percentage amount of nickel. So, in an 18/10 stainless steel, 18% of the alloy is chromium and nickel is at 10%. Likewise, stainless steel that has 18% chromium and 8% nickel is 18/8.
Since the difference in nickel amounts between chromium and nickel is just 2%, the performance is almost the same and the difference is unnoticeable. This is important because nickel leaching is far more detrimental to our health than chromium. Nickel is on the Substance Priority List (SPL) of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). We only need trace amounts of nickel in our body, and we already get most of that from foods like nuts, chocolate, and grains. Plus, kitchen appliances like crockpots and coffee machines which use stainless steel are additional sources of nickel, too. Overexposure to nickel can lead to eczema, allergies, lung disorders, and cancer.
To find out if your cookware has nickel in them, you can do the magnet test. If the pot is magnetic, it is nickel free.
To sum it up…
I know, that’s a lot of information! But, to put it more simply, make sure that the stainless steel you buy is at least T-304 or higher.
One of the very best options for healthy cookware is Cast Iron. It’s made by melting a combination of iron ore and steel at super high temperatures and then sandblasted to remove any impurities. Iron is an incredibly dense material, more so than aluminum or copper, and has great heat-retention qualities. There is minimal leaching of iron or any other minerals when using cast iron.
It might take a little getting used to, and it’s higher maintenance than many other options, but it is safe, cooks well, and is budget-friendly. You don’t use soap to clean it, and they require seasoning. To clean, you can scfrub with salt and then rinse with water. Dry thoroughly, drizzle with cooking oil, and spread it around. Make sure the pan completely dries.
Ceramic Coated cookware can be a good choice. Most ceramic coatings are actually “Sol-gel” coatings, which consist of silica (sand) and other inorganic chemicals. This is the preferred method of applying ceramic coatings to cookware. It seems much better than PTFE coatings, but there is not a lot of historical research yet on Sol-gel and it’s effects on human health.
Plus, not all ceramic coatings are the same. Don’t go cheap. Look for one that’s certified by third-party testing and free of PFAs, PFOA, lead, and cadmium. One ceramic-coated cookware that many people recommend is the Always Pan.
100% Ceramic and Enameled Cookware
Ceramic cookware is awesome because it’s completely inert, meaning it won’t leach any harmful toxins no matter how long you’re cooking or at what heat level. Ceramic pans are usually free of heavy metals, polymers, coatings, and dyes. They are dishwasher safe and easier to wash than cast iron. They are a bit more fragile than other types of pots and pans, so you have to be careful. A brand that many like is Xtrema.
Enameled cookware is another option. It is usually made of cast iron that has been coated in enamel, such as the popular cookware brand Le Creuset. While not perfect in terms of low heavy-metal content, this is still one of the better options. It’s also nice that it doesn’t rust like cast iron can if not properly seasoned.
Glass is a naturally non-toxic cookware material and the baking dishes are non-porous, so odors and stains won’t seep into them as you cook your food. An added perk is that there are tons of budget-friendly glass options. We own lots of Pyrex, and it works great.
Additional tips for choosing the right cookware for your health:
In addition to certain types of cookware, there are other things to watch for when it comes to keeping your cookware healthy.
Older pans: Sometimes older or badly burned pans, even high-quality cookware like stainless steel, may let chemicals seep into food. Older pans that are nonstick also often have Teflon, so avoid using second-hand cookware. It’s better to choose newer cookware when you need to replace a pan.
Chipped or scratched pans: When cookware gets a nick or a scratch, the surface coating, whatever it is, is compromised. This makes it even easier for toxins to leach into your food. If a Teflon pan has a scratch, you’re instantly exposed to whatever metals and chemicals are under the coating. Even stainless steel pans that are badly scratched can possibly expose you to chromium in nickel in amounts that can cause health issues.
Nonstick pans that aren’t labeled PTFE- and PFOA-free: Avoid any cookware that just says “nonstick” without more description. If a nonstick pan is made with the newer PTFE- and PFOA-free materials, those are potentially better.
The right cookware is worth it!
This isn’t a complete list of all the toxic substances found in cookware. But I hope it’s helped alert you to the hidden dangers that can be lurking in your pots and pans, and the importance of researching and investing in cookware that is known to be safe. Your health, and the health of your family, are so worth it!
Let us know if you have any questions about cookware. We always love hearing from you. Do you have a favorite set of healthy cookware? What works best for you?
For those of you interested in our free More Than Healthy coaching calls, we do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to get on our email list or watch our social media pages for the link.
Catch you next week for our next More Than Healthy tip!