How much thought do you put into your cookware? My guess is very little. Life is expensive enough without worrying about the kinds of pots and pans you fill your kitchen with, and if you’re anything like me, you’re happy to buy whatever you see on the sale rack.
Yet, what you see on that sale rack might be looking increasingly similar. This is because a popular trend of recent years has been non-stick cookware, and consumers everywhere are eagerly stocking up on this convenient solution that makes clean up a breeze. In fact, since 2006, almost 90% of all aluminum cookware sold used its special non-stick coating as a selling mark. Thousands of people swear by them and have cast out their regular cookware.
If only it were so simple. The truth is that non-stick pans come at a high cost for their convenience. There are some scary side effects that these pans create for your health and the environment. Once you learn the troubling truth about these trendy pans, you may be ready to ditch your non-stick for good.
What is Non-stick?
The enormous popularity of non-stick cookware comes from how simple it is to use in the kitchen. By definition, non-stick cookware is used to categorize metal pans, usually made from aluminum, stainless steel or cast iron that is coated with a synthetic polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Don’t worry if you don’t recognize this chemical name; it’s regularly referred to as Teflon. Used since the 1940s, PTFEs are sprayed onto metal pans which are then heated to extremely high temperatures to ‘cure’ the final surface. Because foods slide right off these pans, less oil is needed for cooking and cleanup is a cinch. This makes them ideal for cooking otherwise oil-heavy foods like pancakes, hash browns, and eggs.
What’s Wrong With Non-Stick?
Every manufacturer of non-stick pans is going to tell you the same thing; non-stick is perfectly safe when used properly. And this is true. Yet, it’s not a green light to go fulfill all your Teflon dreams. The inconvenient truth of non-stick is that it’s actually extremely easy to use improperly.
The caveat with using non-stick is that pans should never be overheated, because it compromises the quality of the PTFE coating and causes it to create toxic vapors. The problem is that it’s far easier to overheat your pans than most people realize. EWG commissioned testing in 2003 revealed that heat damage can occur in fewer than five minutes on a conventional stove turned to high heat. It’s generally agreed that any temperature above 500 degrees F is too hot for Teflon to handle. Unfortunately, many home cooks are used to heating their stove tops to 650 degrees and beyond.
Making non-stick pans isn’t exactly great for the environment, either. The manufacturing process for PTFEs has a high environmental cost that puts wildlife at risk of accumulating the toxins in their fatty tissues. Thanks to bio-magnification, these toxins can be passed through the food chain and even affect the next generation of offspring.
The Dangers Of Teflon
Heat created chemical vapors are never a good idea, and PTFE fumes are worse than others. The chemicals you breathe in when incorrectly using them are bad for you, the environment, and even your family pets. In truth, there is a whole host of chemicals released into the atmosphere when you overheat non-stick. Some of the most common are perfluoroalkyls; perfluorooctanoic acid, and fluoropolymers, three chemicals that remain in your body for well over four years after you’ve been exposed to them. These chemicals have been linked to lots of health problems, including thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol levels, organ damage in lab animals, and reproductive issues in women, including smaller birth weights and infertility.
There are plenty of short term effects caused by exposure to overheated PTFEs, too. “Teflon Flu” gives people flu-like symptoms that include chills, a fever and even vomiting that weakens the immune system and keeps your head in a fog. In fact, these chemicals are so strong they can quickly kill pet birds that are exposed to them.
The good news is that accidentally eating flakes of Teflon in your food doesn’t seem to cause any negative health effects. Yet, this is small comfort if the process of cooking your food has already exposed everyone in your household to a cocktail of chemicals with largely unstudied long term effects on health and wellness.
What You Can Use Instead
Thankfully, there is no reason to subject yourself to the toxic fumes of non-stick cookware because there are plenty of affordable alternatives that can cook you great tasting food without the risk of contamination. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know what kinds of cookware is truly safe, because labels like “green” and “not non-stick” aren’t regulated, meaning that they often don’t truly mean what they imply.
The smartest way for you to stay safe with your cookware is to avoid anything with a coating and instead turn to cast iron, copper or stainless steel for your stove top cooking needs. All three of these surfaces tend to be naturally non-stick and even help your foods to achieve a tasty level of browning. When it comes to using the oven, your best bet is to use oven-safe glass dishes that won’t release any toxins when heated.
These products may take a little more elbow grease to keep clean, but the advantages for your health make them well worth the inconvenience.
Out of Options? How to Make Non-Stick Work For You
Not everyone has the budget to do a complete overhaul of all their kitchen cookware, so if you find yourself with a full set of Teflon coated pots and no easy way to replace them, there are ways to make them work. In order to make non-stick work for you without putting your health at risk, follow these tips to put this questionable cookware to the safest use possible.
- Keep your non-stick pans on low or medium heat as much as possible, and never let them reach temperatures above 500 degrees.
- Never use the self-cleaning setting on your oven because it cleans your oven by heating it to high temperatures that can potentially create toxic fumes right in your oven from the non-stick surfaces that are inside it.
- Keep pet birds out of the kitchen. It’s never worth the risk to their health to potentially expose them to PTFE fumes.
- When you heat up a pan, cover most of the space with whatever you’re cooking in order to keep the overall pan’s temperature down.
- A good way to safely preheat non-stick pans is to add a tablespoon of water as it heats up. Once the water starts to sputter and steam, the pan is hot enough for food and the temperature can be lowered.
- Keep non-stick pans off “power burners” that reach super-hot temperatures like 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove.
- Use only the highest quality non-stick cookware, as cheap, light pans will heat up faster and put you at greater risk of inhaling toxic fumes.
- Keep your kitchen well-ventilated by filling it with exhaust fans that can blow away the toxic fumes.
- Be careful not to scratch or chip non-stick pans by using wood or silicone utensils to stir your food. Though it’s not dangerous to ingest pieces of non-stick pans, causing the coating to peel off makes it easier for it to vaporize into toxic fumes. For this reason, chipped or damaged cookware should be tossed out.
- Don’t use non-stick to broil or sear meats. This cooking technique requires temperatures that are too high to be safe for non-stick and should be avoided.
These tips will help keep you safe if non-stick cookware is your only option, but keep in mind it’s a smart idea to start saving up for some healthier options like these.
The long lasting popularity of non-stick pans is not to be trusted; these pans are bad news. The risks to your health aren’t worth the convenience of spending a little less time washing dishes, so make the sensible choice and swap out your cookware for some less toxic alternatives. Glassware, stainless steel and copper pots and pans are all far preferable to any form of non-stick cookware you’re currently using. However, if you’re stuck with the non-stick you’ve got, you can reduce your risk of getting sick by using it at low temperatures. Just be sure to invest in safer cookware when you get the chance.