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Toxic Cookware: Is Ceramic Cookware Safe?

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Toxic Cookware: Is Ceramic Cookware Safe? about Vital Force

There has always been debate in the kitchen over which foods are best for achieving and maintaining robust good health. But other debates are going on in kitchens across America.

There's also controversy over cookware. We're talking about whether or not the pan you're cooking dinner with is safe for you and your family. The choices make it challenging: From stainless steel to cast iron and nonstick to ceramic-coated cookware, your options seem endless.

Today, we'll do a deep dive into common cookware dangers and reveal the facts on cookware safety, so when it's time to get a new pan-- yes, you should replace them regularly, and we'll tell you when-- you can make the best choice for your needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Nonstick cookware is convenient but often contains PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are a group of synthetic chemicals that, when heated, can release toxins into the air and your food.
  • PFAS are linked to various health problems, including cancer, thyroid issues, dementia, and developmental problems, due to their persistence in the environment and human body.
  • There are much safer cookware alternatives. These include high-quality ceramic, stainless steel, or cast iron cookware.

What's Wrong With Cookware Today?

Nonstick cookware, including muffin pans, woks, baking sheets, and probably your favorite frying pan, is the most popular type today. It contains a fluoropolymer coating generally made up of PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS are a group of synthetic chemicals prized for providing a slick surface and reducing friction by repelling oil and water-- hence the marketing gimmick "nonstick."[1]

Beyond cookware, PFAS is used in industrial processes for everything from waterproof or stain-resistant clothing and shoes to uranium refining for manufacturing atomic bombs. More than 9,000 substances exist in the PFAS “family” of toxic compounds.

This class of chemicals also includes subgroups of chemicals like perfluorosulfonates (PFOs) and perfluorocarboxylic acids such as PFOA and PFNA, which are solvents generally used to apply the fluoropolymer coating to cookware.

So, what's the problem?

Chemicals Released During Cooking

PFOA is not entirely removed during the fabrication of nonstick coatings for cookware. This means that nonstick cookware made with PFOA releases PFOA when heated.

These chemicals seep into the air when cooking at normal heat as well as into the food cooked in the pans. They've been linked to a host of health problems, from reproductive issues to cancer. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid (C8), is a greenhouse gas (GHG). This means it's a gas in the Earth's atmosphere that traps heat, preventing it from escaping into space and contributing to the greenhouse effect. This process helps maintain the Earth's temperature safely, but excess can lead to global warming and climate change.[4]

This is just the beginning of the problems PFOAs cause...

Health Dangers Of Cookware Materials

PFOAs have been nicknamed "forever chemicals" because of how long they stay in the environment and, unfortunately, the body. That's a problem because PFOAs are shown to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing, according to The American Cancer Society.[7]

Studies in laboratory animals discovered that PFOAs can increase the risk of liver cancer, breast cancer, testicular cancer, and pancreatic cancer. But it's not only animal studies; studies on people have also discovered trouble. In this case, researchers examined the cancer rates of people living near or working in PFOA-related chemical plants. What they found was an increase in testicular cancer and kidney cancer. Then there are the studies suggesting that PFOAs can cause thyroid cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer.[5]

One of the most popular types of PFOAs is Teflon.

The Discovery of Teflon

Teflon was an "accidental" invention by a chemist in 1938. The fellow was trying to make a refrigerant and instead came up with the non-reactive, low-friction substance polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)—what we know as Teflon.

Since then, PTFE has been employed as a coating on pots, pans, wiper blades, curling irons, stain-resistant carpets, and even microwave popcorn bags — to name a few chemical-laced modern-day conveniences. By the way, the chemical PFOA is a key ingredient in Teflon.

So, just how dangerous are Teflon and other nonstick pans?

Teflon and Nonstick Pans

For decades, cookware companies have been coating their products with PFAS chemicals to create that nonstick surface that repels oil and water. The most well-known of these is Teflon.

PTFE-- or Teflon-- starts to disintegrate at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius). As this happens, toxic fumes containing PFOA are released into the air. This might seem like a very high temperature, but it only takes a couple of minutes to heat an empty pan to reach 500 degrees F, and cooking a steak can require a temperature of around 600 degrees F. Still, the research shows that seemingly normal cooking conditions can easily lead to PFOA and other toxic chemicals being released into the air from PTFE coatings.

These toxic fumes can cause flu-like symptoms like breathing difficulties and fever (polymer fume fever). PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid), formerly used in PTFE production, is a persistent environmental pollutant linked to cancer, thyroid issues, and developmental problems. These coatings also contain chemicals called PFCs, which have been linked to some severe health issues like cancer, obesity, thyroid problems, and pregnancy complications.

In addition, a study at Harvard found Teflon increases the risk of diabetes. Higher exposure to perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) was associated with a 62 percent increase in the risk of Type-2 diabetes. Higher perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) exposure was associated with a 54 percent increased risk.[6]

Due to their widespread and persistent use, PFAS has become a pervasive contaminant. These chemicals are now present in the bloodstreams of nearly everyone living in developed nations.[10]

Aluminum Cookware

You know that aluminum isn't good for you. It's a neurotoxin linked to nervous system and brain damage. If you're exposed to too much aluminum, it can put you at higher risk for learning disorders, autoimmune conditions, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease. Aluminum can also interfere with your body's ability to absorb calcium and lead, over time, to bone-weakening osteoporosis.[13]

Unfortunately, kitchens nationwide are still filled with aluminum pots and pans. Here's why that's a problem...

Aluminum is a reactive metal which can interact with acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus, and vinegar. If you're cooking food that's acidic or salty, there's a chance that the metal itself could start leaching into your food and also increase the amount of aluminum you're ingesting.[8]

Moreover, as your aluminum cookware gets older and more worn down, the damage can cause even more aluminum to leach into your food. This is especially true if the aluminum cookware is not properly anodized (that fancy coating that protects them).

Copper Cookware

Those shiny copper pots and pans add a touch of elegance to any kitchen. But as gorgeous as they are, cooking with copper can be a bit of a minefield.

Just like aluminum, copper can leach into your food. Copper is also a reactive metal, especially with acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, and vinegar. Not only can it cause the copper to leach, but it can also mess with the taste and color of your meal, causing a culinary disaster.

Cook any food that's acidic or alkaline in those unlined copper pans, and there's a risk that the metal itself could start seeping into your food. While a small amount of copper is essential for your health, too much can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and unpleasant tummy troubles.[9]

Over time, chronic exposure to high levels of copper can lead to some terrifying stuff, like liver and kidney damage, as well as neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease. It can even interfere with your body's ability to absorb other essential minerals like zinc and iron, potentially leading to deficiencies.

If you're going to use those copper pans, you've got to stay on top of the maintenance game. Unlined copper can tarnish and rust if not properly cared for, increasing the risk of leaching into your food.

Most modern copper cookware has a lining, like stainless steel or tin, to act as a barrier between the metal and your food. But even then, you've got to keep a close eye out for scratches or damage to that lining. Because if the underlying copper gets exposed, you're right back where you started.

Lead and Heavy Metals

If you're not careful, heavy metals in your cookware can sneak into your food. One of the biggest and most dangerous offenders is lead.

Lead is highly toxic and can cause all sorts of problems, especially for kids. We're talking about developmental delays, learning issues, and behavioral challenges. Even low levels of exposure can do damage.[2]

Then there's cadmium, a heavy metal that's been linked to cancer and kidney damage. It can also damage the health of your bones and your reproductive health-- especially if you're a woman.

Nickel is another common offender, and for those with sensitivities, it can cause some severe skin rashes and respiratory problems.[12] And let's remember chromium. There are two forms to be concerned with; while the trivalent form is good for you, the hexavalent kind is a different story. This stuff is carcinogenic and can cause lung cancer if inhaled.[3]

Cooking with pans containing these heavy metals can be a risky business. We're talking about brain damage, organ failure, and all sorts of health problems that you want to avoid. But if you can't give up your favorite pots and pans, there are some rules you can follow to minimize the dangers.

4 Rules for Cooking with Teflon and Nonstick Cookware

Proper cleaning, avoiding food storage in pans, and not overheating them can help reduce potential health risks from cookware. More specifically...

Rule number one: Never heat those pans on the stove without anything inside, whether oil or food.

Rule number two: Follow the manufacturer's temperature recommendations. Don't push the limits; keep those non-stick pans out of the oven.

Rule number three: Cleanliness is next to godliness, my friends. Wash your hands and wipe down surfaces after using non-stick cookware. Those pesky chemicals can stick to dust and other particles, and we don't want any unnecessary exposure.

And finally, rule four: Keep that kitchen well-ventilated when cooking with non-stick pans. If you've got feathered friends at home, keeping their cages out of the kitchen during these times is best to be safe.

Safer Cookware

Opt for cast iron, stainless steel, glass, ceramic coated pans, or pure ceramic cookware without nonstick coatings to protect yourself.

Stainless Steel Cookware

Let's talk about stainless steel cookware and why it's an excellent choice for health-conscious people in the kitchen.

First off, stainless steel isn't just made from steel. It's forged with nickel and chromium and usually has an aluminum or an aluminum alloy core center to help evenly distribute heat. So, how could it be safe then? That aluminum core is fully encapsulated in stainless steel, so there's no risk of it leaching into your food. And the tiny amounts of metals like nickel and chromium that could leach out of the pans are negligible – we're talking way below levels that could cause any health issues, even if you have a nickel allergy.

Stainless steel is also built to last. It's incredibly durable and scratch-resistant, so you don't have to worry about particles or coatings flaking off into your food, even as your cookware ages, and gets some battle scars over time.

Overall, stainless steel is widely regarded as one of the safest and most inert materials for cookware. However, stainless steel is not nonstick-- anyone who's ever scrambled an egg in a stainless steel pan without oil or butter knows that firsthand! It's one reason why ceramic cookware is growing in popularity.

Ceramic Cookware

To answer the question, is ceramic cookware safe? When it comes to healthy cooking, ceramic cookware shines. The ceramic coating gives these pots and pans their signature glossy, non-stick surface – and it's all-natural. That means you can cook delicious and healthy meals with little to no added butter or oil, and your food won't stick to the pan. Talk about a game-changer for those trying to cut back on calories.

There are two types of ceramic cookware - pure ceramic cookware, also known as stoneware, and the other made by coating a stainless steel or aluminum core in a nontoxic and nonstick ceramic coating, also known as nonstick ceramic coated cookware.

Ceramic pans are made from natural materials like clay and mineral-based glazes, free from harmful chemicals like PFOA, PTFE, lead, and cadmium that can leach into food from traditional nonstick coatings. This makes ceramic cookware a safer and healthier alternative to ordinary nonstick cookware.

If the ceramic coating gets scratched or damaged, you'll want to be more cautious, especially if the inner core isn't made of stainless steel. But generally speaking, like their stainless steel cousins, ceramic pots and pans are non-reactive, which means they won't discolor or impart any funky metallic tastes to your food, even when cooking something acidic like homemade tomato sauce. And no nickel here! The only potential concern with ceramic is the possibility of lead in the core of lower-quality pans. But if you stick with reputable brands, you can cook with peace of mind.

Ceramic pans distribute heat evenly without hot spots, allowing consistent cooking results without burning or overcooking parts of the food. Ceramic pans emit far-infrared heat penetrating food and cooking from the inside out while retaining moisture. This gentle heating method helps preserve more food nutrients than methods that can cause nutrient loss.

Cast Iron Cookware

Let's talk about cast iron cookware. Cast iron skillets and pans are incredibly popular, especially for hearty dishes like chili, stew, and other home-cooked meals. But did you know that cooking with cast iron has some potential health risks?

One of the biggest ones is related to iron itself. You see, cast iron is great for absorbing and releasing iron, but if you're prone to absorbing too much iron, this could lead to something called "iron overload." And too much iron can be dangerous. We're talking about issues like liver damage and even a heightened cancer risk from excess iron building up.

Then there are the actual risks of using cast iron, like the risk of rust from cast iron cookware. Sure, a little rust here and there isn't going to kill you, but if you're not careful about cleaning and maintaining that cast iron properly, you could be ingesting more rust than you bargained for.

Finally, even though cast iron is excellent for absorbing and releasing iron, it could also absorb other nasty metals that you don't want to ingest. We're talking stuff like lead and cadmium.

So, while cast iron cookware might seem like just cookware, your cast iron skillet, pots, and pans should be used and maintained cautiously.

When To Replace Your Cookware?

If your pans are scratched, rusted, or damaged in any way, it's time to bid them farewell. Those scratches can release even more metals into your food, which you don't want.

Regarding nonstick pots and pans, it's important to note that while certain toxic PFAS compounds were removed from Teflon production in 2006, any non-stick cookware you have from before that date might still contain these harmful substances.[11] Even non-stick pans made after 2006 could be dangerous.

According to Consumer Reports, many nonstick cookware labeled "non-toxic" or "PFOA-free" may still contain other harmful PFAS chemicals. Even products claiming to be PFOA-free may contain the chemical due to manufacturing processes that inadvertently introduce it.

Consumer Reports recommends avoiding cookware made with PFAS and suggests opting for ceramic-coated pans that claim to be PTFE-free. We couldn't agree more.

The concern isn't just about these chemicals potentially leaching into your food. If you crank up the heat on older non-stick pans, they can release hazardous fumes into the air you breathe. But that's not all – if your nonstick pots and pans are scratched or showing excessive wear, it's time to ditch them immediately. Not only does that ruin the non-stick surface, but it also increases the risk of those toxic compounds making their way into your meals.

To safeguard your health, replace any older non-stick cookware with safer alternatives. If you inherited any old cookware, which was often made of aluminum, you should not cook in it. Older aluminum pans may contain lead, which is extremely harmful, especially for kids and pregnant women. Lead exposure can cause learning difficulties, behavioral issues, and developmental delays in children.

Summary

The safety of cookware is a significant concern due to the potential release of toxic chemicals, especially from nonstick pans coated with PFAS. These chemicals, known for their friction-reducing properties, are not naturally occurring and have become pervasive contaminants. PFAS exposure is linked to numerous health issues, including various cancers and thyroid problems. Ceramic cookware is a much safer choice. Alternatives like ceramic, stainless steel and cast iron cookware minimize the risk of harmful chemical exposure.

Frequently Asked Questions

What cookware is nontoxic?

The safest cookware is ceramic, glass, or steel. If you're careful with maintenance, you can also use cast iron cookware. If your cookware shows signs of scratches, rust, or damage, it is no longer safe and needs to be replaced.

How safe is ceramic cookware?

High-quality ceramic cookware is non-toxic and safe to use at average and high-heat temperatures as long as it is not scratched or damaged.

Is nonstick cookware safe?

Only if it's high-quality ceramic cookware. Ceramic cookware does not contain PFAS (short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which can damage your health and the environment. Proper cleaning, avoiding food storage in pans, and not overheating them can also help reduce potential health risks from cookware.

Do all nonstick pans have PFAS?

Most nonstick pans contain PFAS (short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) which can damage your health and the environment. PFAS-free options exist, but studies published in Consumer Reports suggest the claims are only sometimes reliable. The safest nonstick pans are ceramic cookware. These pots and pans are nontoxic.

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