Toxic Cookware: Is It Time to Ban Your Pots and Pans?
Most health conscious individuals try to select fresh foods, pack healthy lunches, and prepare nutritious meals. But how much thought do people give to the containers storing their lunches, the bowls holding their leftovers, and the cookware cooking their meals? And are cookware and food storage containers even something worth thinking about? According to the latest research and experts in the field, the answer is yes.
Some of the most commonly used pots, pans, and storage containers people use contain materials and chemicals that seep into foods during cooking and storage, some of which are detrimental while others, conversely, can actually promote health. A study published in Public Health Nutrition in 2012 cited using non-stick cookware as a risk factor for colorectal cancer. In 2006, the Science Advisory Board also classified perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the chemicals used in non-stick cookware production, as a “likely human carcinogen.”
Sarah Farid-Chaudhry, a mother working on a master’s of science in human nutrition with a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences and mathematics, says she tries to avoid anything that says “nonstick” on it. She understands it is inexpensive and convenient for easy clean up, but she is concerned how it will affect the health of her family. Farid-Chaudhry explains polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is one of the chemicals used to coat non-stick pans and one of its components is PFOA, which has been linked to an array of health problems: thyroid issues, high cholesterol, difficulties during pregnancies, and male infertility just to name a few. Farid-Chaudhry states, “[PTFE] is a synthetic polymer that when heated releases toxic fumes. These toxic fumes can cause [. . . .] headaches, backaches, and chills. It is for this reason that I continue to keep away from any non-stick pans.”
Numerous studies have documented the affect non-stick cookware can have on human health. PFOA gets into food from direct contact during storage and cooking. In a study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, researchers analyzed blood samples from four thousand adult participants and found those with the highest levels of PFOA in their blood were twice as likely to have thyroid disease. Lina Alkasm, BSc Pharm, RPh, a pharmacist from Ontario, Canada, says thyroid pills are the most commonly prescribed medication in her region, beating even acetaminophen and hypertension pills. Alkasm says the number of patients with hypothyroidism is shocking and believes there may be a relation between cookware and thyroid function contributing to the high number.
Unfortunately, PFOA is not the only chemical in our kitchens linked to thyroid and hormonal dysfunction. Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, chemicals commonly used in plastic containers, cups, and even infant formula packaging, are also disrupting thyroid and hormonal balances in humans, according to an article published in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology in 2012. In other words, unless the plastic containers in your cupboard are labeled “BPA-free,” these chemicals are in there. Thankfully, due to consumer complaints and dollar power, many companies have elected to remove these chemicals from their products and label them accordingly.
Another toxic cookware commonly found in the American kitchen is aluminum. Aluminum is the most abundant naturally occurring neurotoxin on Earth. Since 1911, scientists have shown aluminum residue buildup in the brain causes Alzheimer-like symptoms. According to an extensive review article published in 2011 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, “The hypothesis that AI [aluminum] significantly contributes to AD [Alzheimer’s disease] is built on very solid experimental evidence and should not be dismissed. Immediate steps should be taken to lessen human exposure to AI [. . .].” The authors say even the small amount of aluminum people ingest while eating is enough to be poisonous to the brain. People do not walk around eating aluminum, so how does it get into our bodies? Mainly through cookware, storage containers, beverage cans, and aluminum foil. (Yes, stop lining your pans in foil for easy cleanup! It’s not worth it!)
Anodized aluminum cookware is produced by subjecting the aluminum to a process that oxidizes the surface of the aluminum rendering it extremely hard and inactive with other substances. A leading manufacturer of anodized aluminum cookware says it is safe and does not react with acidic nor alkaline foods, and its nonporous hard surface makes it scratch resistant and non-stick all at once. But Andrew Weil, MD, a national expert on holistic living and preventive nutrition, recommends staying away from all aluminum products, including anodized aluminum. He says there is no room for aluminum in the human diet because of the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and many other associated health risks.
Dr. Shorouk Dannoon, assistant professor of nuclear medicine at Kuwait University, only uses stainless steel, glass, and ceramic cookware. They have withstood the test of time regarding human safety.
Farid-Chaudhry prefers using stainless steel cookware. She confesses it took time to relearn how to cook using the new pots and pans without burning the food, but now she only cooks with medium heat. Stainless steel is made from iron melted with other metals to produce strong, rust-resistant products. Be careful to avoid products labeled “tri-ply,” as they are essentially aluminum wrapped in stainless steel.
The Canadian Government categorizes stainless steel as a healthy option for cooking but not for food storage. During cooking and storage some of the metals leach into the food; while these levels remain within a safe range during preparation, they could exceed safe levels during prolonged storage.
These products are safe for storage and cooking. They are easy to maintain and clean. Just be sure the products specifically state they are safe for ovens, microwaves, and dishwashers. Enameled cookware remains safe as long as the porcelain enamel is not chipped or cracked. Also take care to ensure ceramic cookware is one hundred percent ceramic, not just “coated.”
The only concern when using these products, especially ceramic, is that the materials used to decorate them may contain lead, cadmium, or other substances harmful to health, according to HealthyCanadians.gov. Select clear glass or plain enamel and ceramic in order to avoid chemicals. Also only use products bought in the United States or Canada, where unhealthy substances are regulated.
Cast iron is made by heating raw iron until it melts, then pouring it into molds for it to take the desired shape. Because cast iron is made of pure iron it rusts easily. To prevent rusting, it should be cleaned, dried, and then coated with a thin layer of oil. Cast iron needs extra work to maintain, but it holds a great advantage: when cooking acidic dishes the food retains iron from the pot, which is then utilized in the body once eaten. Studies of malnourished refugees show using cast iron cookware significantly reduces anemia, a condition indicating low red blood cell count.
Switching to healthier cookware can be a time-consuming and expensive process, but many people have made the switch and some are just starting. Keep in mind stainless steel, glass, and ceramic last a lifetime, unlike other products, so the expense carries with it great value. Farid-Chaudhry is in the process of making her kitchen healthier and says, “The most important thing to me is the health of my family, and as I continue to learn about the possible harms [of certain types of cookware], I make the changes as necessary. Buying a new set of cookware may be difficult for some,” concludes Farid-Chaudhry, “however, buying one pot or pan at a time may be a good place to start.”
100% Stainless Steel
Anything Labeled “Non-Stick”
Sarene Alsharif is a nutritionist and an active member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She earned her master’s in public health in addition to certifications in sports nutrition and gluten-free diets.