What's In Your Cookware?

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You’ve done it. You’ve finally made the switch to a more healthful diet. You’re eating better, choosing more organic fruits and vegetables, but what you haven’t considered, may put you at even greater risk. How are you cooking your food?

Ditch the Teflon

Who doesn’t love Teflon? Teflon coated pots and pans work beautifully – you have to work to make something to stick to it, and clean up is a breeze. What more could you ask for? Maybe cookware that doesn’t release six toxic chemicals, including at least one carcinogen. But that’s just me – I’m picky like that.

Here’s the problem. One of the chemicals that makes teflon work – known as PFOA, or perfluorooctanoate acids, just isn’t safe. A study by the Environmental Working Group, in collaboration with Commonweal in 2005 found chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of US-born infants including PFOA. A year later, researchers at John Hopkins Hospital repeated the study, finding PFOA in umbilical cord blood in 99% of 300 newborns tested.

The study’s co-author, Lynn Goldman, MD, explains, “This study confirms that, as we might have suspected, exposure to PFOS and PFOA is fairly universal; this is of particular concern because of the potential toxicity, especially developmental toxicity, for these chemicals and the lack of information about health risks at these exposure levels.”

An EPA advisory panel has tentatively labeled PFOA a “probable” cancer-causing agent. In response, in a voluntary agreement with the EPA, eight major manufacturers have agreed to eliminate 95 percent of PFOA emissions by 2010. The hold out? They still get to use the chemical for making non-stick finishes. Some countries aren’t waiting for the manufacturers to protect their citizens – they’re considering a ban on all products with PFOA.

Even scarier, DuPont, Teflon’s maker, has a brochure about not using non-stick cookware near birds. In a word – don’t. They’ll die. Talk about a canary in the coalmine – the substance kills birds in minutes, but is completely safe for me? I’m not buying into that.

PFOA is a particular concern for a couple more reasons… it stays in the body and builds up over time, and the greatest damage is likely to be done to our smallest and most vulnerable family members – our children.

Safety tip: If you must use your Teflon cookware, the biggest danger is when the nonstick coatings are over-heated, so only cook foods at low heat. Dupont itself warns that exposure to the cookware at high heat
(approximately 500 degrees) can lead to “polymer fever,” a flu-like illness that may last several days.

Well-known brand names containing PFOA include Stainmaster, Scotchgard, SilverStone, Fluron, Supra, Excalibur, Greblon, Xylon, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph and T-Fal.

When you are ready to replace your Teflon pans with safer versions, don’t just throw them away. Consider selling them to a local metal recycling business instead. These pans are categorized as “dirty aluminum” which pays less than aluminum, but at least the material is kept out of landfills.

Aluminum Alert

Ok, you’ve ditched your Teflon, so what’s left? Almost everyone has aluminum cookware in their kitchen cupboards. It seems like a perfect choice: affordable, light-weight, and thermally responsive. But aluminum is reactive too, which means acidic foods like onions and tomatoes absorb aluminum while you cook. Heat up some tomato sauce in an aluminum pan and you can expect to serve 3-6 mg of aluminum per 100 g serving.

So what’s the problem with a little aluminum in your diet? The issue has raged for decades, but recent research continues to confirm aluminum can cause neurologic harm.

In a recent study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, daily aluminum intake of as little as 0.1 milligrams was associated with a greater cognitive decline over the course of the study. In fact, subjects with a high daily aluminum intake more than doubled their risk of dementia.

Safety tip: Keep aluminum cookware in good condition. The more pitted and worn out the pot, the greater the amount of aluminum will be absorbed into your food. Minimize food storage time in aluminum and avoid cooking highly acidic foods in aluminum. Also consider using a good water filter. Some areas have dangerously high levels of aluminum in everyday tap water.

Safer Cookware

Great, we’ve just emptied our cabinets of pretty much all our everyday cookware. What are we expected to cook on now? Here’s a few popular alternatives that carry less risk to your health:

Cast Iron

The original “non-stick” cookware is a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Cast iron can be used to cook at even very high temperatures, with the ability to diffuse and retain heat very well. It even has a health benefit by leaching a small amount of dietary iron into the food.

Enameled cast iron pans are also available. While they can be a little pricey, the enamel coating prevents rusting and eliminates the need for seasoning the pan.

Glass

Glass is the most inert of all cookware. In other words, it doesn’t absorb odors and flavors from foods you cook in it, and therefore doesn’t leach them back into a later dish. For that matter, it doesn’t leach anything else into your food either, good or bad. It’s a great choice, safe for all ingredients, since acidic foods won’t react in glass cookware the way they will in some metal-based pans.

Stainless steel

Very durable, stainless steel browns foods better than non-stick pans. In their 2001 review of sauté pans, Cooks Illustrated chose a stainless steel pan over otherwise identical non-stick models. Stainless steel pans, typically made of an alloy of chromium, iron, and sometimes nickel, does not affect flavor of foods and is fairly easy to clean. However, it will leach metals, including nickel, and should be avoided by anyone with a nickel allergy.

References

Apelberg BJ, et al. Determinants of fetal exposure to polyfluoroalkyl compounds in Baltimore, Maryland. Environmental Science & Technology. 2007 Jun 1;41(11):3891-7.

DuPont. Key Questions About Teflon® non-sticks. Accessed online 2010 Jul 25.

Cannata JB, et al. Aluminium hydroxide intake: real risk of aluminium toxicity. British Medical Journal (Clinical research ed.). 1983 Jun 18;286(6382):1937-8.

Rondeau V, et al. Aluminum and silica in drinking water and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline: findings from 15-year follow-up of the PAQUID cohort. American journal of epidemiology. 2009 Feb 15;169(4):489-96.

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Comments

  1. A.J. says

    Excellent advice! We ditched the teflon and aluminum almost 30 years ago for these reasons, the info on the problems with them have been around for a long time but gets passed off due to people having way too much faith in the establishment. This is just one many examples of everyday products being harmful. It’s nice to see this info on here and I strongly recommend people take heed.

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