What’s So Sticky About Nonstick Cookware?
Most of us have heard of problems with nonstick pans, but many people are confused about the issues and how to find better alternatives for cookware. Here is information you can use to shop smarter for pots, pans, and bakeware.
All the buzz about avoiding nonstick coated pans boils down to this: reduce demand for polluting chemicals. Perfluorinated compounds, (PFCs) commonly used to manufacture nonstick coatings, persist in the environment for years – decades, perhaps indefinitely - and they are linked to serious health effects. PFC chemicals are found in the blood of polar bears and 95% of all humans. If consumers say “no” to PFC coated pans, we reduce demand for this polluting chemical and increase demand for safer alternatives.
Aside from the manufacturing process being a source of PFCs, once the pan is in your kitchen there are some issues: when PFC coated pans are heated over 450 degrees, (studies have shown this is easy to achieve by pre-heating on high for several minutes) toxic fumes are emitted that can kill birds and give people flu-like symptoms in the short-term. PFCs are linked to long-term health effects including cancer, immune system and reproductive problems.
“Perfluorinated compounds” is a mouthful to pronounce or remember – Teflon is the familiar brand name of the perfluorinated compound PTFE invented by DuPont. It’s important to note that nonstick cookware is only one slice of the Teflon pie – other products that use these chemicals include Gore-Tex fabric, stain resistant treatments on carpets and fabrics, and the shiny inner coating on cardboard food packaging like pizza or french fry boxes.
Take inventory of any PFC coated cookware in your kitchen. Throw away those that are scratched or chipping. Pans in good shape and used carefully should pose limited risk. We held on to our All-Clad nonstick skillet for occasional use, but pitched a no-brand nonstick crepe pan and a few other nonstick items of lesser quality. Be careful not to pre-heat an empty PFC coated pan, or use high heat when cooking to avoid the fumes.
Safer cookware options: top picks are cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel. The NRDC has recommendations on shopping for these options here. Beyond those three, anodized aluminum is an alternative. In my kitchen, I mostly use All-Clad stainless steel, Lodge cast iron skillets (I really like the small 8″ skillet, even for eggs!) and a cast iron griddle. I prefer these choices because they are virtually unbreakable and will last forever, instead of being doomed to a landfill in a couple years like most nonstick items are. Plus, cast iron is an inexpensive cookware option.
A side note about aluminum: some people avoid aluminum because it was once linked to Alzheimer’s disease in the 1960s and 70s. Current research demonstrates no causation between aluminum and Alzheimers (see myth#4 from the Alzheimer’s Association), good news for those who like anodized aluminum cookware.
To compare cookware materials check out this summary from Clemson University. It includes discussion of all the common cookware options including aluminum, pottery, copper and more. I should point out that in the section on nonstick coatings, the Clemson information says “A coated pan heated for long periods at high temperatures will give off fumes, but these are less toxic than fumes given off by ordinary cooking oils.” This might come as a surprise, but it is true – cooking oils have smoke points beyond which they give off toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. If you are interested in learning more about this, Whole Foods Market has a helpful guide to oils.
Don’t forget to consider what you put in the oven. Teflon coated bakeware (muffin tins, cookie sheets, etc) is ubiquitous. For a durable and safer option choose stainless steel baking alternatives like these from American Kitchen. I’ve been very happy with these products – high quality for a reasonable price. Pyrex glass bakware is also a good option.
New generation “green” nonstick pans. There are nonstick pans available that don’t use PFCs – look for claims like “100% PFOA and PTFE free” and “ceramic coated”. Recently the NY Times Green Blog highlighted one of these options, the Ozeri Green Earth Pan. Other similar pans include GreenPan, and Beka Eco-Logic. If you prefer nonstick, choose the ceramic coated versions. This is leading technology – so there is no 100% guarantee these processes are “safe” for people or the environment – but they are an improvement over what we do know about the consequences of PFC coated pan manufacturing.
photo used under creative commons from m kasahara