by Todd C. Killebrew, N.D.
One of our readers recently made a request for more information about non-stick cookware. Many of you have probably wondered whether or not those ubiquitous non-stick pots and pans in your kitchen are harmful to your health. The fact that they are coated with noxious chemicals doesn’t sit well for many. But are the chemicals used in these non-stick surfaces harmful when the cookware is used as directed? There is no simple answer. In short, it depends.
Let’s take a look at Teflon-coated pans. Although no studies to date have shown that harmful chemicals are released when Teflon pans are heated within “normal cooking temperatures,” they do in fact release toxic gases when they are heated above 500° F. When this happens the non-stick coating breaks down and off-gases a chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which causes flu-like symptoms and headaches and may even kill some pets. It has also been labeled by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen (ie, cancer-causing) and has been detected in the blood of 90% of Americans.
DuPont, the maker of Teflon, claims that normal stove top cooking doesn’t reach those temperature levels. However, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) says their tests showed that non-stick pans exceeded 700° F after three to five minutes of heating on a gas or electric stove top. However, these temperatures were for empty pans and pans that are heated with food tend to stay at lower temperatures.
I don’t recommend using teflon-coated pans since there are better, less risky alternatives. One of these alternatives is anodized aluminum, which is simply aluminum with a buildup of oxidization on the surface. It is a non-stick surface, is more durable than Teflon, is non-reactive, and doesn’t leech harmful chemicals even if it’s overheated.
For non-anodized aluminum cookware there still is some uncertainty about its safety for cooking as it is highly reactive to acidic foods and aluminum can be toxic. Excessive exposure has been linked with Alzheimer’s disease (though this link has been largely disproven), bone demineralization, and kidney disease. Keep in mind as well that aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust and we are exposed to it via multiple unavoidable sources. All the more reason to limit exposure if we have the choice.
Since anodized aluminum is not reactive this shouldn’t be an issue, however care needs to be taken not to scratch through the oxidized surface and allow food to come into contact with bare aluminum. For this reason virtually all aluminum cookware today is either lined with stainless steel, coated with Teflon or is anodized.
The anodized coating is quite durable and is generally scratch-resistant, so under normal use scratching shouldn’t be an issue. The surface does tend to break down over time, however, and anodized cookware eventually needs to be replaced. Again, I would not cook in exposed aluminum (especially acidic food) except some baking, but I would not hesitate to use an anodized aluminum cooking surface as long as it is not scratched.
Cast iron, of course, is another non-stick option that is generally non-toxic and potentially even beneficial for those lacking enough iron in their diet. The problem for some is that it must be properly seasoned and requires much higher maintenance. It can also be an issue for those who are susceptible to a genetic condition called hemochromatosis, in which the body accumulates excessive iron and so additional exposure through cookware is not advised.
Of the most common options available, many would agree the best, and most practical, non-stick cookware is anodized aluminum because it is non-reactive, low maintenance and is effective for its purpose. Cast iron is also a fine option but it is more difficult to maintain and doesn’t have quite the same non-stick properties as does anodized aluminum.