In a previous post, I touched on the fact that your kitchenware impacts your health. It’s great that you might be eating organic, non-gmo and fresh foods. You can be buying all the right ingredients, but if you’re using the wrong tools, you might be leaching unwanted chemicals and toxins into your clean and healthy diet!
These toxins can be added by the way that food is prepared. Today I want to talk specifically about frying pans/skillets. Since the very beginning, I’ve used a non-stick frying pan. I grew up with them and never thought twice. As I started to become more health-conscious, I knew they weren’t great, but I hadn’t really done the research to find out how bad it was. Thanks to a recent school project, I decided to dive into the topic for once and for all.
Non-stick coatings are filled with some scary stuff.
I’m going to get a little scientific on you, so please bear with me. Teflon, a common non-stick coating, is a synthetic polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), brought to us by the wonderful people of DuPont. Teflon (PTFE), and other non-stick coatings, are part of the family of man-made chemicals called “Perfluorochemicals” (PFCs), which have also been linked to numerous side effects in the body and on our environment. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), a chemical found within Teflon (a PFC chemical) is linked to many of these same effects as well. PFOA is so widespread, that it can be found in almost everyone’s blood in the United States. Here’s why that’s a bad thing:
Cooking Teflon at high temperatures releases toxic fumes which can cause flu-like symptoms. In addition, the high heat breaks apart the particles which can then be absorbed by your food. In recent years there has been further research on PFOA which has exposed side-effects including reduced fertility, low birth weight, early puberty, endocrine disruption, immune problems and more. In a very recent case from this year, DuPont was found liable for causing kidney cancer in a woman in Ohio, by poisoning the local drinking water with PFOA from the manufacture of Teflon. Further, these chemicals don’t biodegrade – they bioaccumulate in our bodies. The more we are exposed to, the more that accumulates within us.
But what about the non-stick coatings that claim to be PFOA- and Teflon-free? To me, it’s like food that claims to be fat-free. Instead of adding fat, they add sugar (even worse) to make it taste good. In the case of your non-stick frying pans, you don’t know what other chemicals the non-stick coating is made from. They could be worse than Teflon! Bottom line: do you trust big industry? It’s up to you.
Maybe it’s time to get rid of those non-stick pans. But what to use instead?
Fortunately there are alternatives available! I will explore three of the most common “less-toxic” skillets: cast iron, stainless steel and ceramic. I will not cover ceramic coated pans, as during my research I have read that the coating breaks down easily which is not healthy. Each of the below options are safer and more natural options.
Cast Iron Skillets
You may remember your mother or grandmother cooking with these babies. They’re huge and ridiculously heavy. These skillets are made with cast iron and hold up well over time – as long as you continue to season them regularly. Here is a list of pros and cons to using this cookware:
- Only one ingredient: cast iron. No added chemicals.
- Can be used in the oven or on the stovetop.
- Very durable – are often passed down by generation because they last FOREVER.
- Relatively inexpensive.
- When seasoned correctly, can become relatively non-stick.
- Doesn’t require detergent or soap for cleaning, meaning fewer chemicals down our drain into waterways.
- Cast iron requires maintenance. It needs to be seasoned frequently to keep a non-stick coating and avoid rust.
- If not properly maintained, pores in the cast-iron can trap grease or oils and become rancid.
- The cast iron can react with acidic foods (like tomatoes) and throw off the taste of your dish – especially if the pan is not well-seasoned.
- Take caution with cast iron because it leaches iron into your food while cooking. Iron can build up in your body acting as a toxin and pro-oxidant, potentially leading to disease.
I think a cast iron pan is a great alternative to have in your kitchen, but I don’t believe it’s the only option you should have on-hand. I personally don’t use mine every day because of the iron transfer, and if I’m cooking tomatoes, I don’t want to worry about the mixing of iron and acid which would change the flavour of my dish.
Stainless Steel Skillets
Stainless steel frying pans are made of an alloy of a few different metals, at various quantities, which can include iron, chromium, nickel, titanium, copper and vanadium. Sometimes stainless steel pans have an inner core of aluminum or copper because these metals are great heat conductors and stainless steel alone can have a hard time conducting heat properly and evenly.
- Just like with cast-iron, these pans aren’t made with added chemicals.
- Stainless steel doesn’t react to acidic foods the same way that cast-iron skillets do.
- Generally this cookware is dishwasher safe.
- Durable and long-lasting.
- Relatively inexpensive.
- Some of the challenges with stainless steel pans surround the “stick-factor”: since they are not lined with a non-stick coating, certain foods are more prone to sticking if a proper base (like coconut oil) is not used to prime the pan.
- There is some concern that stainless steel pans can leach nickel and chromium since these are part of the stainless steel alloy. However, other research shows that the stainless steel alloys make the material very durable, so minimal leaching is anticipated. It also seems that the higher the quality and grade of stainless steel, the less leaching.
- Environmentally, stainless steel requires a lot of processing in manufacturing and mining for these metals. It is a very energy-intensive process and a strong toxin polluter. Mixing metal materials, such as stainless steel and copper, makes it more difficult for the metals to be recycled as well.
Stainless steel is another great alternative to have in the kitchen as part of your rotation. It is perfect for any food – acidic or not – because it doesn’t react with the food in the pan. Just make sure that you properly prime the pan with enough oil or butter to keep your food from sticking.
In researching ceramic skillets, I kept coming across Xtrema Ceramic Cookware. Lots of people seem to agree that they’re a great alternative to the non-stick pans that we are used to. These pans are ceramic through-and-through, and not ceramic-coated, so they are light-weight but fragile.
- Ceramic cookware is made of clay and free from metals and chemicals. This means no metals are leaching into your foods and thus into your body.
- Clay is said to enhance the flavour of certain dishes.
- It is effective at maintaining heat.
- Multi-purpose piece which can go in the oven as well as on the stove top.
- Ceramic pans, like Xtrema Ceramic Cookware, are still coated with a glaze. Although the glaze is not the traditional non-stick coating with PFCs and PFOAs, it is unclear what specifically it is made of. According to a quote here, the glazes are made of inorganic minerals and oxides containing no metals or lead and cadmium. Glazed cookware is a regulated industry in Canada, which limits the amount of lead and cadmium in the ceramics and the glaze, so new products should be safe from this perspective. However, there is no indication about what specifically makes up the glaze, so it’s a bit of an unknown.
- If you are using old ceramic cookware, or cookware from another country, check the lead content because it may not have been regulated.
- Ceramic can break easily if you’re not careful.
- Ceramic cannot be recycled if it breaks.
Well ladies and gents, there you have it! There are many options out there other than non-stick pans. There are challenges with each one, and none of them are entirely perfect, but that’s life right? Let’s use what we know and make wise, health-conscious decisions. Non-stick pans are the easy way out, but they are also seemingly the most toxic.
Is it time to revamp your pots and pans?