What are the risks of conventional non-stick pots and pans and what are the best non-toxic cookware alternatives? The Wise Consumer breaks down what you need to know below!
What type of cookware are you using to cook your food? Truth be told, back in the day, I pretty much only used non-stick pots and pans. They just made cooking so much more convenient — bye-bye stuck food and messy pans!
Unfortunately, what I came to learn was that my convenient non-stick pans were coated with a material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), more commonly known as Teflon, a type of polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), that was most likely emitting toxic fumes and leaching into my food when cooked at high temperatures.
So, it got me wondering, what exactly are these chemicals in non-stick cookware and are there safer non-toxic cookware alternatives on the market today? Let’s explore.
The Toxic Chemicals in Non-Stick Cookware
When the non-stick cookware first entered our kitchens in the 1960s, they were all the rage. And it was not surprising. Due to its frictionless surface, it made cooking so convenient — less messy and easier to clean.
At the time, the public did not know the health concerns this non-stick, man-made coating material known as Teflon had on people exposed to it or our environment.
What Are PFAS?
PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals.
These chemicals report the EPA, “are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time.”
In fact, because of their inability to break down, PFAS are often referred to as “Forever Chemicals.”
Two of the most commonly produced and studied PFAS are Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), both of which are stable chemicals composed of chains of eight carbons (also known as long-chain PFAS, or C8) that have a unique capability to repel oil and water.
Until recently, PFOA was used in the process of making Teflon and other similar chemicals while PFOS, a synthetic chemical used to make products resistant to stains, grease, soil, and water was used in products such as 3M’s Scotchgard stain-repellent products. (Note: In early 2000, 3M announced It would no longer use PFOs in their Scotchgard stain-repellent products.)
Where are PFAS found?
“Perfluoroalkyls (PFAS) can enter your body if you breathe air, eat food, or drink water containing them,” shares the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Most commonly, PFAS are found in products such as:
- Non-stick pans (Teflon)
- Food packaging (e.g., microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes)
- Waterproof/stain repellent products (like in jackets and carpets)
- And even in personal care products such as shampoo, hairspray, mascara, and nail polish
Furthermore, PFAS have also been found in drinking water near facilities that have made or used these substances such as military installations, wastewater treatment plants, firefighter training facilities, and more.
PFAS have even been found in remote locations such as the Arctic and the open ocean, according to the CDC.
Are PFAS harmful?
Exposure to PFOA and PFOS has been linked to numerous concerning health conditions.
As reported by the EPA, these conditions include:
- Developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants
- Liver effects
- Immune effects
- Thyroid effects, and other effects
Unsurprisingly, those most vulnerable to these health concerns are those working in the factories producing PFAS or living near these chemical manufacturing facilities.
What’s more, recent studies have found that nearly all individuals in the United States, “have been exposed to PFAS and have PFAS in their blood, especially PFOS and PFOA.”
[Note: If you haven’t already, check out Dark Waters, a film based on the true story of Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer who in 2001 took on an environmental lawsuit against the DuPont chemical company for having knowingly contaminated the drinking water in the Ohio River Valley. You can read more about it in this New York Times article, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.]
Although chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS have been largely phased out in the United States due in part to the PFOA Stewardship Program, they are still persistent in our environment and still being produced and manufactured in other countries.
What About “Safer” Substitutes for PFOA?
It is yet to be determined whether short-chain PFAS, such as GenX, DuPont’s substitute for PFOA, are safer than their long-chain legacy counterparts.
According to The Intercept, these new PFAS compounds actually “present many of the same threats associated with longer-chain molecules.”
From what I’ve gathered, most experts highly recommend that we try our best to avoid these “safer” substitutes.
How Can You Avoid PFAS?
While it’s pretty hard to completely avoid PFAS there are a few things you can do to help reduce your exposure to these chemicals.
- Check your drinking water (you can use EWG’s Tap Water Database)
- Avoid fast-food packaging
- Limit your exposure to water-resistant textiles
- Opt for non-toxic cookware alternatives such as stainless steel, glass, ceramic, and cast iron if possible
Below is a list of the non-toxic cookware materials and brands you might consider using in your kitchen!
Non-Toxic Cookware Alternatives
While there are many products on the market labeled as safer alternatives to non-stick cookware, the Environmental Working Group suggests using cast iron, stainless steel, and oven-safe glass.
This is because “manufacturers do not have to release their safety data to the public” the EWG shares.
Pros: Cast iron pans have been around for generations. They’re durable, maintain heat exceptionally well, are toxic-free, and, when seasoned correctly, are almost as good as non-stick.
Cons: The challenge with these age-old skillets is that they’re heavier, not always easy to clean, and can leach iron into your food. If you’re low in iron, leaching iron into food is actually a good way of obtaining natural iron. However, if you suffer from too much iron (hemochromatosis), you may want to avoid cooking with cast iron.
Pro Tip: avoid cooking high acidic foods, such as tomato sauce, in cast iron skillets.
Pros: Glass is another great alternative to non-stick coated cookware as it does not release chemicals, doesn’t hold on or absorb flavors, and is easy to clean (dishwasher safe).
Cons: It’s not non-stick, so make sure to use plenty of oil when cooking. And, of course, if not cared for properly glass can easily break.
Pro Tip: look for oven-safe glass!
Pros: Stainless steel is scratch-resistant, non-toxic, long-lasting, and extremely durable.
Cons: The downside to stainless steel is that it is not non-stick so requires a bit of extra oil to avoid food sticking in the pan. Also, if your stainless steel cookware starts to corrode, it’s best to replace it or avoid cooking with it. You can read more about the pros and cons of stainless steel here)
Pro Tip: When purchasing stainless steel, make sure you’re buying food-grade stainless steel as this type tends to contain less nickel and/or chromium, which have the potential to leach into food. If you have a sensitivity to nickel you should avoid cooking with stainless steel.
Pros: Ceramic is a great alternative to conventional non-stick cookware as it too is non-stick, easy to clean, and cooks food easily.
Cons: The downside is that ceramic cookware is best used only at low or medium heat, overheating can wear away the non-stick coating. And similar to conventional non-stick pans, non-stick ceramic are not metal utensil safe (best to stick with wooden utensils when cooking).
Pro Tip: When purchasing ceramic cookware, it is best to find brands that are made of 100% pure ceramic, such as Xtrema, or that are made using non-stick coating free of lead, cadmium, PTFE (Teflon), PFOA, Gen X, and other harmful chemicals, such as Caraway. Make sure the brand is transparent about materials used for non-stick ceramic coating as not all non-stick ceramic coating is safe.
Before purchasing non-stick cookware, check to see if the brand has been certified by a third party and/or is transparent about materials used. If you’re not sure, you can always reach out to the brand and ask them directly to share more information.
- Never heat an empty pan, especially at high heat
- Don’t put the pan in an oven hotter than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 Celsius)
- Use an exhaust fan over the stove.
- Don’t use metal utensils. Rather, use wooden utensils as these are less likely to scratch the surface of your cookware.
- Gently handwash the cookware with a sponge and soapy water.
The Best Non-Toxic Cookware Brands
The Field Company is a non-toxic cookware brand that was started by two brothers, Stephen and Chris Muscarella, who were on a mission to develop smoother, lighter cast iron skillets reminiscent of vintage pans. The company also provides helpful tips on how to care for and extend the life of your cast iron. Products range from cast iron skillets to dutch covens
Lodge Cast Iron is one of the oldest cast-iron companies in the United States, making cast iron products since 1896. This brand is not only eco-friendly and socially conscious (read more here), but it also provides plenty of tips, recipes, and guides on how best to use and season your cast iron products.
Products range from seasoned cast iron skillets to cast iron bakeware.
This Portland, Oregon, cast iron company is dedicated to crafting non-toxic cookware that will stand the test of time. Finex cast iron skillets are polished, tumbled, pre-seasoned, and assembled completely by hand. One unique aspect of this brand I personally like is their stainless steel ergonomic handles which allow the handles to stay cooler longer, i.e., no need for mitts when frying an egg.
Products range from skillets to grill pans.
Xtrema’s non-toxic cookware is made from 100% pure ceramic. Their cookware is FDA-approved and meets California Prop 65 standards, certifying that it is free of more than 800 compounds that may cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.
Products range from skillets and saucepans to dutch ovens.
5. 360 Cookware
This stainless steel cookware brand is manufactured in a Green E-Certified factory in Wisconsin (recognized by the EPA) and made using only the highest quality stainless steel. Also, they’ve developed a unique vapor method to help cook better, healthier, more nutritional food. Read more about it here.
Products range from frying pants and stockpots to large cookie sheets.
6. Emile Henry
Made in France since 1850, all Emile Henry products are manufactured from Burgundy clay and other natural non-clay products. According to their website: “All of the raw materials are food-safe and meet the most stringent food-use regulations, including CA Prop 65.”
Products range from soup pots to tagines to pie dishes.
This non-toxic ceramic cookware brand uses a high-quality mineral-based coating that is free of toxins, lead, cadmium, PTFE (Teflon) and PFOA. In addition, all products are ethically manufactured and packaged in recycled cardboard with zero plastic bags.
Products range from frying pans to dutch ovens and come in various fun colors.
About the Author
Madeleine is a Franco-American podcaster and blogger on a mission to inspire and empower women to live healthier, more eco-friendly, and conscious lifestyles. On her blog/podcast, The Wise Consumer, she covers topics ranging from nutrition and recipes to ethical fashion and eco living tips. When not working Madeleine is either spending time with family, developing new recipes, or running trails.
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Disclaimer: The advice given in this post is simply that — advice. These are not medical recommendations. Please consult your physician or another medical professional for specific suggestions related to your personal health.
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