There might be hidden health dangers lurking in your kitchen cabinet: your cookware. Studies show that certain kinds of kitchenware could be discharging toxic fumes and chemicals into your food.
Over time these foreign substances can build up in your body, potentially damaging your health. The good news is that there are safe, high quality cookware and kitchenware alternatives. Find out how to check your cookware, what you may want to replace, and which cookware choices are the safest.
So, is your cookware toxic? I’ll explain how to find out, and what you should do about it …
Your Nonstick Cookware
Nonstick pans are one of America’s favorite cooking tools; they are easy to use and clean, and they don’t require a lot of oil to grease the surface.
As popular as these convenient pans are, many Americans are unaware about the toxic coating that forms the nonstick surface.
Teflon, also known as PTFE, is a brand name for the special coating on nonstick pans. When these pans are overheated or left on the stove too long, the PTFE sometimes releases toxic fumes, which studies have shown can cause flu-like symptoms in humans and can be fatal to birds.
Nonstick cookware can also leach another toxic element directly into your food. The chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used in the making of PTFE, has been denounced by many experts for its carcinogenic properties. Additionally, some research has shown that the chemical can increase the risk of high cholesterol levels, thyroid disease and infertility.
The American Cancer Society reports that PFOA, has been linked to tumors and cancers, and the IARC, a research division of the World Health Organization, has labeled it “possibly carcinogenic to humans” – that is, a cancer causing substance.
PFOA has also been linked to thyroid disease in a 2010 study. New Jersey saw PFOA contamination of their water at unsafe levels, prompting at least one Congressman put forth a bill calling for the CDC to examine the health risks of this toxin.
The Nonstick Cookware Controversy
Some experts argue that the amount of harmful chemicals and fumes from nonstick pans are not enough to make you seriously ill. According to their regulations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states PTFE as a coating is safe when used properly.
But scientists are still indefinite on just how dangerous PFOA is to our health and more conclusive research is needed.
According to Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, nonstick pans are safe as long as they’re not overheated. When they are, the coating may begin to break down (at the molecular level, so you wouldn’t see it), and toxic particles and gases, some of them carcinogenic, can be released.
“There’s a whole chemistry set of compounds that will come off when Teflon is heated high enough to decompose,” says Wolke. “Many of these are fluorine-containing compounds, which as a class are generally toxic.” But fluoropolymers, the chemicals from which these toxic compounds come, are a big part of the coating formula — and the very reason that foods don’t stick to nonstick.
How Hot is Too Hot For Nonstick Cookware?
“At temperatures above 500ºF, the breakdown begins and smaller chemical fragments are released,” explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center.
DuPont, inventor and manufacturer of Teflon, agrees that 500 degrees F. is the recommended maximum for cooking.
Keri Glassman, a certified nutritionist and founder of Nutritious Life in New York City, explains that there are safe alternatives to avoid these potential risks.
“It’s important for people to know the risks, because just like picking out healthy food in the grocery store, consumers should and do have choices,” says Glassman.
Instead of rolling the dice and waiting for more concrete evidence, Glassman suggests users should err on the side of caution.
“Although these chemicals in nonstick surfaces are in very small amounts, they do still stay in our bodies. And that’s not to scare people, you are getting a teeny bit in there. But when there are other great options out there, you have a choice,” says Glassman.
Safety Tips for Nonstick Cookware
If you do use nonstick cookware, follow these tips to minimize toxic fume and chemical discharge:
Never Preheat an Empty Pan
In Good Housekeeping Research Institute tests, each of the three empty nonstick pans they heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees in less than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in under two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; the cheapest pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees in two and a half minutes!
Don’t Cook on High Heat
Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now advise consumers not to go above medium. (DuPont maintains, however, that Teflon does not pose any health risks, and that its guideline is simply meant to maximize the life of the product.)
Do people still cook on high, despite manufacturers’ instructions? “There’s no statistical answer to that question,” says the FDA’s Honigfort. But you know if you’re doing it, and if you are, the consensus is clear: It would be safer if you stopped.
Since some people won’t switch to medium, or will overheat accidentally if distracted, says Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group, “we recommend that people simply phase out the use of nonstick pans.”
To play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don’t place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range); those burners, seen more often in recent years, are intended for tasks like boiling a large pot of water quickly.
Ventilate Your Kitchen
When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan and open the window (if appropriate) to help clear away any fumes.
Don’t Broil or Sear Meats
Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can usually handle.
Choose a Heavier Nonstick Pan
Lightweight pans generally heat up fastest, so invest in heavy gauge cookware — they’re safer and they last longer.
Avoid Chipping or Damaging the Pan
We’ve all been told not to use metal utensils on nonstick pans. Newer products may be harder to chip, “because the adhesion between the pan and the nonstick coating is better,” says Honigfort. Still, if pans do chip or flake, they may be more likely to release toxic compounds, says Kannan of the New York State Department of Health.
To prevent scratching, use wooden spoons to stir food, avoid steel wool, and don’t stack these pans. (If you do, put a paper towel liner between them.)
How long can you expect your nonstick cookware to last?
DuPont’s estimate, based on moderate usage, is three to five years. Some experts, like Kannan, advise replacing your nonstick cookware every couple of years.
What should you do if the pan does become damaged?
A clear answer, from Kannan: Throw it out.
Aluminum and Alzheimer’s Disease
Another chemical that many people use in their kitchen for cooking and storage is aluminum, which can leach into food, especially when heated.
Studies have shown a link between Alzheimer’s and aluminum. In 1989, the respected medical journal the Lancet reported that “people who were exposed to high levels of aluminum in municipal water systems were at least 50 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those drinking water with low levels of aluminum.”
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that:
“The hypothesis that (Aluminum) significantly contributes to (Alzheimer’s Disease) is built upon very solid experimental evidence and should not be dismissed. Immediate steps should be taken to lessen human exposure to Al, which may be the single most aggravating and avoidable factor related to AD.”
Also hotly debated on this front is the safety of anodized aluminum cookware, however these are normally covered with a nonstick coating, so you should avoid these as well.
You may want to avoid or at least minimize all sources of aluminum in your kitchen, including tin foil, pans, pots, cheap utensils and more.
Silicone Molds and Bakeware
The testing that has been done on silicone is on medical-grade silicone without fillers or additives and at body or room temperature. These studies have shown that silicone is safe at these temperatures and long-term follow-up data support this.
Silicone’s safety at high temperatures has not been adequately tested and this is where the controversy emerges.
Silicone bakeware is rated for temperatures below freezing and up to almost 450°F, so on paper it is safe.
… But is it?
The Swiss consumer broadcast Kassensturz and magazine A Bon Entendeur had 13 silicone baking molds analyzed in a Geneva laboratory to find out if silicone can leak into the batter.
The molds were cut into small pieces and heated for 4 hours in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius. They were weighed before and after baking. The difference in weight after baking showed how much silicon vaporized.
According to the Swiss regulation, the loss of free organic substances should not exceed 0.5 percent. The test also determined how much of the silicone was absorbed in the dough during baking process. For this test, the forms were filled with a acid-containing liquid and heated for 2 hours. After that, they tested how much of the silicone passed to the cake mold liquid.
Swiss law determines which substances are allowed for the production of silicone, but only a small part of the substances have been studied toxicologically. The health risks are unknown, says the test leader and cantonal chemist Patrick Edder. He adds that silicone can migrate at already 150 degrees Celsius.
Of the 13 silicone bakeware samples tested, almost half of the products are very close to or even above the legal limit of leaked silicone.
The day after the test results have been revealed during the airing of their broadcast, national retailers decided to remove the highest leaking silicone molds immediately from their store shelves.
Most of the brands are not available in the US, some are probably sold under a different name; however, the two IKEA brands and DeBuyer, are available in the US.
Relevant Test Results
- Ikea Kalpudding Baking Mold: Rated Unsafe
- Ikea Kalpudding Baking Mold: Rated Unsafe – it exceeds the allowed amount of silicone that can pass into the cake by more than double.
- Ikea Sockerkaka Baking Mold: Rated Safe – it leaks out only minimal amounts.
- DeBuyer Moul’flex Pro Baking Mold – Test Winner – Safe – no migration and only very minimal amounts vaporized.
Silicone Bakeware Safety Tips
Odors have been reported by some users, but this usually happens due to the use of low-quality and low-grade silicone. It looks as if these odors are connected to fillers used in the final product, rather than the silicone.
- Note that bakeware made from quality, food grade silicone doesn’t produce any odors.
You can test your silicone for filler by twisting and pinching it.
- If white shows, it contains filler. Discontinue use and instead look for higher-grade silicone bakeware.
Silicone bakeware is rated from below freezing temperatures up to 450° Fahrenheit. The safety of silicone bakeware when it is repeatedly exposed to high-temperatures over long periods has not yet been studied. So long term studies should be conducted to ensure that the silicone is completely safe for baking.
- In the meantime, don’t use it at temperatures over 450° F.
In the 2007 the Italian magazine Altroconsumo tested silicone molds from various manufacturers on the domestic market to verify their food contact suitability. The test revealed that a particularly high level of undesirable substances was released from silicone molds the first time the mold is used.
- The migration was reduced after washing the mold in the dishwasher. So, remember to wash before use.
Ceramic Cookware – A Safe Choice
Ceramic cookware is made purely with a clay formula that is 100% natural.
This means it is free of ANY metals, free of any chemicals, is made without ptfe (teflon) and pfoa, and does not leach any heavy metals. It also means that since there is no ‘coating’ other than a natural ceramic glaze, there is no risk of anything flaking or peeling off into food.
Cast Iron – Another Safe Choice
Cast iron cookware is an old-fashioned favorite, and one of the safest cooking options available.
PTFE- and PFOA-free, cast iron cookware have no added chemicals. In fact, the only thing that may leach into your food is the mineral iron.
“You’re not going to get those chemicals in your food with cast iron. What you will get, even if you scrape it at the bottom a bit, is a little bit of iron, which is a good thing!” Glassman said.
Unlike nonstick pans, cast iron pots and pans have no heat limitations and can go from the stovetop right into any oven or grill.
A favorite pick is the popular brand, Le Creuset. The French company has been making premium enameled cast iron cookware since 1925 and prides itself on its superior performance and lasting quality.
Stainless Steel – An Excellent Choice
Stainless steel cookware is considered to be another safe choice.
This cookware gets its name because of its ability to resist corrosion. The surface of stainless steel does not flake, so pieces of the material do not break off and contaminate your food like with most non-stick cookware.
Stainless steel is a combination of metals, including carbon, chromium, nickel and/or manganese. Because stainless steel contains a mix of these metals, some lower quality stainless steel cookware may discharge a small amount of nickel into your food from the steel.
However, if you purchase high-quality cookware, like a Gunter Wilhelm set, these products contain a much smaller amount of cheap metal fillers like nickel.
High-quality stainless steel is designed to make products resistant to leaching or reactivity.
The outside layer of Gunter Wilhelm cookware is made from type 430 stainless steel. This kind of stainless steel material contains a minute amount of nickel (0.50 percent or less). So if you are a little wary about the nickel content in some stainless steel cookware, Gunter Wilhelm is a safe and healthy choice.
All-Clad is another very high quality stainless steel option I love. I received an All-Clad stainless steel cookware set as a wedding gift, and even with regular use over 30 plus years, these pieces still look great, and are a joy to use.
These are not inexpensive, but in my opinion, these are an excellent investment; you will truly have a lifetime of satisfaction from this set.
The only cookware of its kind, All-Clad d5 Polished uses patented technology with five alternating layers of stainless steel and aluminum for excellent results and optimal browning
- Compatible with all cooktops, optimal for induction
- Patented five-ply construction throughout the pan
- 18/10 stainless steel cooking surface will not react with food
Food Container Safety
It’s easy to hoard plastic take-out containers when you don’t know the real dangers pertaining to plastic.
Plastics contain chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and phthalates that can get into your food.
“We know that plastics with BPA have been linked to cancer, [poor] brain health, and [poor] heart health, so we really want to be careful and get everything with BPA out of our kitchen. And we certainly don’t want to microwave with it. When you microwave your food in plastic, the high heat really increases the release of those chemicals,” Glassman warned.
Leaching can also escalate whenever plastic touches acidic, fatty or salty foods.
Choose Glass Food Containers
Take a rain check on your Tupperware parties and invest in some durable glass food containers.
Glass containers are considered the safest option, as they do not leach any chemicals into your food and are microwave safe.
“Glass recycling is also more environmentally friendly, and it lasts longer, so it will save you money over time,” Glassman said.
GlasLife by Tribest is just one of the many great brands that produce safe and affordable glass containers. They can be used to bake and store foods, as well as reheat leftovers. The plastic lids are BPA-free and have airtight seals to lock in freshness and keep pollutants away from your food.
These Prep Naturals glass containers are a really versatile set; they have an airtight, leak-proof seal that locks in your food and keeps it protected from outside bacteria, and are made with top-notch dishwasher, microwave, oven, and freezer-safe glass, that won’t warp or break with regular use.
Cutting Board Safety
Plastic Cutting Boards
Although there is some debate on which types of cutting boards are better and more hygienic, plastic cutting boards are a safe option, as long as they are in good condition and properly cleaned.
Plastic cutting boards are lightweight, easy to store, and easy to move around the kitchen. More importantly, they can be easily and effectively disinfected in the dishwasher.
Plastic boards with dings and dents, however, are impossible to disinfect with hand washing, so if you don’t have a dishwasher, you can sanitize a plastic cutting board by hand washing it to the best of your ability with hot, soapy water, rubbing with the cut side of a lemon, and popping it in the microwave for a minute.
Watch for Wear and Tear
After all the slicing and dicing work done on a plastic cutting board, you will inevitably see little cuts and nicks across the surface. Those plastic cracks and crevices just happen to be the perfect home for dangerous bacteria to live in.
Those ridges your knife leaves you with are going to collect bacteria. People think that with plastic, you can just wipe the bacteria right off, but actually things like E.coli and salmonella are going to stick to the plastic more than to wood or bamboo.
Another possible drawback of the plastic cutting board BPA factor. The bits of plastic that come from those small knife scratches have to go somewhere – and that somewhere could be in the food you’re chopping. Fortunately nowadays, many plastic cutting boards are made without BPA; so it’s just a matter of making checking the product labeling.
So remember to keep your plastic cutting board clean, and consider replacing it when it starts to look scratched up.
Wooden Cutting Boards
Not only do wooden cutting boards look the nicest but, if treated right, they can bounce back from all sorts of abuse and, according to this study from the University of California, Davis, they are naturally anti-microbial.
Hardwoods like acacia, teak, and maple are your best bets, as they’re the least porous, and therefore less likely to hang on to water and bacteria. And if all that’s not enough for you, keep in mind that wood cutting boards are also the kindest to your knives, as they absorb impact from the blade without over-dulling them.
A good example is the Winsome Cutting Board by Sonder Los Angeles. This is a thick, large,, reversible board, made of acacia wood. It has all kinds of nice features, too. You can use the juice groove side for prepping and chopping, and the recessed channel side for serving and entertaining. It also has a perfectly sized channel to hold your crackers or sliced baguette. I think this board makes a terrific cutting and serving piece.
Bamboo Cutting Boards – Another Good Choice
Like wood, bamboo is naturally antimicrobial, but it’s a bit harder, and thus a little rougher on your blades. However, that extra density also means it’s less likely to get marred and scarred by your knives, which translates to fewer nooks and crannies for water to seep in.
A dry board is less likely to warp than a moist one and, as long as you’re not soaking your bamboo board in the sink, they can last a really long time. Bamboo is also a highly renewable resource, which isn’t a bad thing.
Maintaining Wooden or Bamboo Cutting Boards
Seasoning Wooden or Bamboo Cutting Boards
Wood is naturally porous, so without a protective finish, it can absorb juices from your food, transferring colors and aromas from one recipe to the next. Worse, if excess moisture builds up inside that board, it can lead to warping and cracking as the wood unevenly expands, or, in the worst case, rots from within. Seasoning your wooden board right after you buy it and oiling it occasionally can prevent all of that from happening.
The first time you season your board, you should aim to really saturate it in oil. Any food-safe mineral oil will be fine.
Pour on what looks like far too much, then rub it in with a clean dish towel that you’ll dedicate as your board towel from this day forward. It may look like there’s a thick oil slick on top of your board when you’re done rubbing, but let your board rest for about five minutes and come back and take a look. All the oil has been absorbed!
When breaking in a brand-new board, repeat this process about three times to ensure that there are no thin or extra-thirsty spots.
After the initial seasoning, all you need to do is maintain the oil on the surface by reapplying a single thin layer and letting the board rest overnight every time it starts to wear thin.
Cleaning Your Wooden or Bamboo Cutting Board
First – don’t ever soak a wooden cutting board in water or put it in the dishwasher! It can cause it to warp, split, and/or crack.
If you use your board to slice bread or chop vegetables, a full scrubbing probably isn’t necessary, and a quick wipe down with a damp rag is usually enough. But if you are dealing with meat or juicy, staining fruits, you may need take slightly more aggressive action.
To clean wood or bamboo, give it a scrub with warm soapy water and dry immediately, and stand it up so that air can circulate on all sides.
For stubborn stains, sprinkle the board with coarse salt and scrub it up good with a halved lemon.
Glass and Marble Cutting Boards Are Safe (But They’ll Ruin Your Knives!)
Do not use a glass and marble cutting board for cutting. They may be easy on the eyes, but they will destroy your knives.
They are, however, excellent for serving purposes. Also, they look great in photos.
While no one should tell us what kind of cookware to use, it’s always good to be an informed consumer.
Sometimes, getting the information we need in order to make an informed decision isn’t available unless we dig a little.
I hope I’ve presented you with some helpful and balanced information and suggestions, so that you can feel confident in your cookware purchases and usage.