We are all aware that the foods we eat influence our health. We know what foods to consume and which ones we should stay away from. We think about the physical food items, but what about the way in which our food is prepared? The pots and pans we choose can have a significant effect on our health. Our cookware and our health are not independent of one another.
Dangers of Cookware
You may be conscious of what you eat, but your cookware could actually be what is causing you harm. Non-stick cookware are made with materials such as steel or aluminum, and contain a chemical coating to make them ‘non-stick’. The real danger is this coating applied to your cookware. When non-stick cookware is heated to high temperatures, chemicals in the coating are released into our food. You may have beautiful, organic vegetables, but your cookware is adding chemicals for you to consume. This is a real concern and some of the dangers are as follows:
- “Teflon flu”: Teflon is one of the main coatings used in cookware. When breathing in the fumes that are expelled at high temperatures, people can experience flu-like symptoms. This is due to the polluted air within your kitchen during cooking. Teflon is a brand name that is associated with non-stick cookware.
- Smaller birth weight of new born children: A fetus feeds off of their mother’s diet and what she consumes. Chemicals ingested are no exception. Mice were found to have lower birth weights, and rats were found to have neonatal cell death.
- Elevated cholesterol
- Abnormal thyroid functioning
- Liver inflammation: Our livers works extremely hard to protect us against all the toxic substances that enter our bodies. These chemicals pass through our liver, creating a negative effect.
- Weaken immune system: We are only as strong as our immune system. It is crucial to look after ourselves, so that your immune system can operate at an optimal level.
- Tumor Growth and Cancer: Tumors were found within the testicles, liver and pancreas of rats studied. Studies that looked at humans whom were exposed to PFAO at work, found higher levels of bladder and kidney cancers.
As you can see chemical associated with cookware can harm your body. Teflon is known as PFOA, or ‘perfluorooctanoic acid’. This substance is suspected of being a carcinogen, and about 95% of us have this substance in our bloodstream (this is including new borns). It has also been found within polar bears and marine animals; due to environmental factors.
Types of Non-stick Coatings
- Teflon coating: This is the most common non-stick coating, which was introduced in the 1950’s. It is associated with all the risks that have been mentioned thus far and is not recommended.
- Titanium coating: Although titanium coating is advertised as ‘PFOA free’, is still contains a synthetic coating and is also not recommended. This cookware tends to be aluminum with a synthetic titanium fused coating applied and is still reactive.
- Diamond coating: Once again, this coating is advertised as not containing PFOA, but it still has a synthetic coating applied that is made from PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene). This is essentially the same coating as Teflon non-stick pans. Companies providing diamond coated pots and pans claim that it contains ‘no Teflon’. This is where you need to be careful. This is in fact true, this cookware does not contain Teflon. The reason they can say this, is because ‘Teflon’ is a Trademark and belongs to the company DuPont. Chemical exposure is just as concerning when referring to diamond coated cookware.
- Cooking Spray: This is not infused into your cookware, this spray is added to your cookware when you begin to cook. This spray appealed to many because of it allows for ‘fat-free cooking’. The spray may be low in calories, but it is high in chemicals. Cooking spray actually contains ‘propellant’. This substance is used in areosol containers and can be made from propane, carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide.
We are exposed to these chemicals without any knowledge. This is a real concern and should be addressed. We are being exposed to these chemicals through environmental factors, such as:
- The air: These chemicals can enter our bloodstream via the air. We inhale PFOA’s due to contaminated air or even dust.
- Water and soil: We are being exposed through our water systems, especially if you’re located close to a manufacturing facility. These chemicals have been found in our drinking water, soil, sediment, ground water and even areas in the open ocean.
- Food: These chemicals have been traced back to the foods we consume (link between our food and contaminated soil). Newborns whom are consuming breast milk may be exposed through their mother’s milk.
- Products: This is where cookware would be relevant. We are exposing ourselves through consumer products.
Once these chemicals have entered our body, they are not metabolized. It is not entirely known how PFOA is distributed across human tissue. Studies in which used rats, showed that majority of the PFOA was found within the blood, liver and kidneys.
It is not only your health that is a concern regarding this cookware. Non-stick cookware simply does not last. It is not as durable and the coating begins to flake off after extended use. You are better off to invest in healthy cookware options that will last you a lifetime.
Other Cookware and Concerns
Copper: There is no doubt that copper is an excellent source of heat (which is why it is commonly found within stainless steel pots and pans). In small doses, copper is beneficial to our bodies. It helps to form red blood cells, maintain bone health and support a healthy immune system. We tend to get the copper we need from; dark leafy greens, dried fruit, shellfish, potatoes and more. Some foods actually increase copper leaching. Leaching is when minerals are absorbed from a solid. If you use copper pots and pans be aware that foods in which contain a high level of acidity can increase leaching (e.g. tomatoes). Since we get enough copper in our diet, it is ideal to have copper pans that are lined with stainless steel.
Aluminum: These pots and pans are lightweight and inexpensive. They conduct heat well, but there is a concern of aluminum seeping into food. Salty water and food have also been known to cause pitting in aluminum pots and pans; causing old pots and pans to have possible trace amounts of harmful substances like fluoride and arsenic. With that being said, there are anodized aluminum pots and pans that are available. They are more expensive, but the electro-chemical process causes aluminum to stay ‘locked’ inside. Therefore, aluminum will not leach into food due to this process.
There are various options in terms of safe and healthy cookware. Here are some options:
- Stainless Steel: These pots and pans generally have copper or aluminum between sheets of stainless steel. This is a great option because it creates great heat conductivity while providing a safe cooking surface. Stainless steel pots and pans are not non-stick, so they are typically great for high liquid recipes (e.g. soups and sauces). They can also be used for a wide variety of other ingredients and cooking purposes.
- Cast Iron: Is highly durable and can be heated to much higher temperatures than it’s non-stick counterparts. Cast iron does not release chemicals when heated like non-stick pots and pans do. They actually provide traces of iron. Many people are iron deficient, so this is one instance of leaching that is actually beneficial.
- Ceramic: These tend to be finished with enamel and are safe to use. They can reach extremely high temperatures. You just need to be concerned with decorative additions. Just make sure that it is specifically for cooking and food use.
Here are some recommendations in order to provide the highest level of safety for you and longevity for your pots and pans.
When Do You Throw Your Pots and Pans Away?
If you are able to, replace your non-stick pots and pans right away. Replacing them with a safer, longer lasting option is your best bet. In order to get rid of these, you may have to call up your city and see how to properly dispose of them (e.g. scrap metal depot).
If you are not able to replace them right away, make sure you do so before they begin to ‘flake’. This coating will begin to flake off after extensive use and can end up in your food. Also, if you are stuck with your non-stick pans, do not overheat them in the oven for example. Temperatures get too hot and there is an increase in chemical fumes.
Ways to Remove Burnt Areas and Dirt Naturally
Many cleaning products are packed with chemicals, and then you wash your pots and pans with these substances. The best ways to clean your pots and pans are:
- Water: Soak your pots and pans in hot water. Let them soak and then give them some elbow grease.
- Salt and Lime Juice: Squirt some lime juice and throw some salt into your dirty pots and pans. Let this rest for a few minutes and then scrub. The salt and citrus juices will lift dirt and burnt areas.
- Baking Soda: This is great if you have excessive amounts of grease left in your pots and pans. The baking soda will suck the grease up and allow for easier disposal (it will clump up).
- Vinegar: Vinegar is great for cutting through grease and stains. Make your own all-purpose spray using some citrus peels, vinegar and water. It is quite simple to make and is a great natural alternative.
Cooking Your Food: What You Should Be Aware Of
It is important to mention some cooking tips that will improve your health. High temperatures can have a negative affect on your food, in terms of it’s nutritional value. For instance, when you boil potatoes, a lot of the vitamins go into the water. Vitamins tend to dissolve in water, therefore vitamins B and C are lost within your boiling water. Here are some of the processes you need to be aware of:
- Protein denaturation: When certain foods are cooked at high temperatures (meat, eggs, vegetables, etc.), the protein molecules can change their structure. This may cause some amino acids to be destroyed.
- Vitamin loss: As mentioned with the potatoes, essential vitamins can be lost through heating processes.
- Mineral loss: This will be seen when boiling ingredients. If you need to cook your vegetables, consider steaming. Green vegetables such as broccoli, have been shown to hold more of their nutrients when steamed.
- Negative compounds: High heat may form some undesirable compounds such as carcinogenic substances.
Although some foods lose nutritional value when heated to high temperatures. There are also foods that increase in nutrients and benefit from heating. Some of these foods are;
- Root vegetables: Without heating, these vegetables can be hard to digest. Heating them softens their structure so that we can consume them. Cooking carrots actually allows for the cell walls to break down, providing more beta-carotene (linked with good eye health and immune function).
- Tomatoes: Heating tomatoes actually helps to break the cell wall of the tomato, releasing lycopene (beneficial antioxidant compound).
- Leafy greens: When heated, oxalic acid is reduced. This acid blocks iron absorption and is found in greens like spinach or swiss chard.
Next time you go to cook a meal, be conscious of your cookware. Non-stick pots and pans are the worst option in terms of leaching. Try and replace this cookware with safer, more effective alternatives. Stay away from cookware that releases chemicals, and consume food in the state that makes it most beneficial.
"Is Your Cookwear Poisoning You?" by Emma Deangela, Dietsage.com, 2014.
Ecosalon. (June, 2013). 4 Veggies and Fruits That Are Healthier to Eat Cooked Than Raw. Retrieved on April 4, 2013
Environmental Working Group. (2014). Skip the non-stick to avoid the dangers of Teflon. Retrieved on April 4, 2014
EUFIC. (November, 2011). The Why, How and Consequences of Cooking Our Food. Retrieved on April 4, 2014
Steeland, K. (April, 2010). Epidemiologic Evidence on the Health Effects of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). EHP. Retrieved on April 6, 2014