I’ve been getting a lot of questions about non-toxic non-stick cookware in my Facebook Group, the Green Product Forum, so I wanted to share some tips and specific product recommendations here.
If you’re like most people, you start to think about toxins in your food before other areas of your kitchen. Maybe you’ve heard that you shouldn’t use Teflon™, but you’re not sure how bad it really is. And should you really throw away a perfectly good pan? I’ve got these answers and more for you – let’s dive in! This article covers the basics of cookware, and the podcast episode linked here goes into more detail on additional materials and bakeware (you can also find it wherever you listen to podcasts).
What is Teflon™?
Teflon™ is the trade-name for chemical manufacturer DuPont’s non-stick cookware. It’s like the “Kleenex” of non-stick cookware, but other brands exist. It is made from polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE. (Yes, PTFE, not PFOA. If you’re royally confused because all you’ve heard about Teflon™ is how toxic PFOA is, you aren’t alone… read on.)
Is Teflon™ Toxic?
Teflon™ got a bad reputation because PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid) was historically used in the manufacturing process. PFOA is now banned, not because of a health risk in cookware, but because it was found to be contaminating water supplies near manufacturing plants. It is a carcinogenic, hormone disrupting, persistent environmental toxin (meaning that once it enters the environment, it doesn’t leave). It is generally accepted that very little PFOA remains on a product by the time it gets to the consumer.
The Canadian Cancer Society appears to be more concerned about TFE, which is used to create the non-stick coating. It has been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “probably cause of cancer” and it may be released from PTFE-coated non-stick cookware at high heat.
And for those of you interested in the Rock Pans, they still contain PTFE. The ceramic options are PTFE-free, but from what I’ve seen don’t have great performance reviews online.
I highly recommend watching The Devil You Know on Netflix, or the Mark Ruffalo film Dark Waters for more on the absolutely unacceptable manner in which Dupont poisoned people as a result of Teflon manufacturing.
How to Reduce the Risk & Keep Using Your Teflon™ Pans
From the research I’ve done, the greatest harm caused by these non-stick pans is in the manufacturing process itself. If you have an entire kitchen full of it, I might suggest starting to swap some pieces out. But if you just have a pan or two that are in great shape, here are some tips to keep using them more safely.
Do not dry-heat them (i.e. make sure there’s always water or oil in them when heating) and use them only at low heat. Studies have shown the chemicals can off-gas at normal frying temperatures.
It is commonly recommended to discard scratched Teflon™ products, as this exposes the centre of the coating which is not intended to come in contact with food.
Non-Toxic Non-Stick Cookware
If you’re ready to move away from Teflon™ for your pots and pans , the good news is that you’ve got options. Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones:
Cast iron pans are heavy, but they really will last a lifetime. Keep them well-oiled (“seasoned”) and make sure they’re dry before storing. Avoid cooking acidic foods, like tomatoes, as they will eat away at the pans. The washing process can seem daunting, but once you learn it, it takes very little time.
Here’s a quick video where I walk you through how to season cast iron:
Enameled cast iron is an alternative to plain cast iron that might be appealing to people who are concerned about iron content that can leach from cast iron or the seasoning required to keep cast iron performing at its best. However, as with any enameled product there’s a risk of lead and cadmium contamination. So look for a brand that has 3rd party testing for these (Lodge & Le Creuset seem to have options but they vary so look at it on a product-by-product basis and when in doubt, ask the manufacturer for confirmation). Those with less bright colours typically have a lower risk of heavy metal contamination as they can be used to create bright dyes.
Carbon steel has been used by professional chefs for a long time, and is now in more personal kitchens thanks to being a lightweight alternative to cast iron. Lodge has these options as well and they’re preseasoned so ready to use.
Ceramic is a common Teflon alternative that is light-weight and performs more like Teflon than cast iron. These enamel-coated pans have a shorter use history, so the research volume isn’t the same as with Teflon. Look for brands that are lead- and cadmium-free (like Lagostina or Green Pan), as there are some concerns that products made outside North America may not follow the same safety standards. Like Teflon™, the coating is prone to scratching and these pans have to be treated with care. They have a much shorter life than cast iron, so I don’t recommend stocking up on an entire set because you’ll likely have to replace them in 1 – 3 years which isn’t great environmentally.
Stainless steel cookware would not be considered non-stick without copious amounts of oil or grease. But it does clean up nicely with a scouring pad and some elbow grease. They are also long-lasting and affordable. The elements that make up stainless steel (and cast iron), iron, nickel, and chromium, are thought to be released at low enough levels to not pose a concern to our health (unless you’re allergic to nickel). All Clad is one brand that gets recommended for performance when it comes to cookware and bakeware.
I hope this helps you navigate the options for detoxing your kitchen with respect to non-stick cookware. If you haven’t joined the Green Product Forum yet, it’s a great place to get advice on products for your whole home! Request to join here.