Before we get started on how to avoid these chemicals while still being able to enjoy cooking, let’s first have a look at the toxins we’re dealing with in cookware.
Aluminium is the third most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust, found throughout our water, air, and soil. The fact that there’s so much of it makes it ideal for manufacturing a high amount of cookware, while still keeping the prices low.
While purchasing aluminium cookware is undoubtedly attractive from a money-saving standpoint, the consequences of doing so are more than a little scary. Aluminium is a soft, highly reactive metal, and while naturally abundant in the Earth, has serious health effects when ingested. In fact, aluminium is a known neurotoxin that researchers estimate inhibits more than 200 biologically important functions in your body (1).
Additional studies link excessive aluminum exposure to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, while others have shown it causes nervous system damage (2).
2. Teflon (PTFE)
Teflon, commonly known in the kitchen as “non-stick” or as polytetraﬂuoroethylene in the lab, is one of the most toxic chemicals you’ll find lurking in your kitchenware. In studies, Teflon has been shown to release at least six toxic gases when heated, with several of those being carcinogenic. One, called monofluoroacetic acid, is known for being lethal even at small dosages, while another referred to as PFIB, is a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene (3).
3. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
PFOA is another non-stick chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon. Like PTEE, it has also been linked to nasty side effects such as the development of tumors, neonatal death and toxic effects on the immune system, liver, and endocrine system (4). PFOA also has a half-life of three years and is not metabolized by the body, meaning once it’s in you (as it is in most humans living in industrialized nations) it’s there for a long, long while.
Copper cookware has been prized by many a cook for decades due to its ability to heat quickly and evenly. However, copper is extremely susceptible to leaching into foods, especially when exposed to acidic foods, like tomato sauce. While some copper is healthy, overconsumption has been linked to the development of ulcers and liver damage (5).
Some companies use glazes and coatings on their cookware to give them a uniform colour and more balanced heating abilities. Unfortunately, these coatings often contain cadmium, one of the most toxic metals in our environment. It is a known human carcinogen and tends to build up in the kidneys and liver over time, where it can remain for several years (6).
Like cadmium, nickel is used in glazes and linings of pots and pans, and can even be found in some stainless steel cookware. While it does occur naturally in the environment, excessive exposure has been linked to dermatitis and lung and nasal cancers when inhaled. It has also been shown to cause nausea and vomiting, as well as neurological effects (7).
Some ceramic, enamel and glass cookware is made with lead in order to increase shock resistance (aka, reduce the chance of it breaking if you set it on the counter a little too hard) and improve glossiness. Unfortunately, (as most of you are now aware of), lead is highly toxic and can cause symptoms ranging from muscle soreness and colic to peripheral neuropathy and renal failure (8).
Bisphenol-A is a synthetic compound found in plastics like cutting boards and Tupperware. You have probably come across a number of cans and containers labelled “BPA-free” in the past few years due to raising awareness of its dangerous side effects.
For one, BPA is an endocrine disrupter. This means that it disrupts your hormones and can lead to altered immune function, early puberty, infertility, and ovarian dysfunction (9). In addition, BPA has also been shown to cause liver damage, thyroid damage, and obesity-promoting effects (10).
It turns out other kitchen items beside your pots and pans are potentially far from safe as well. Plastic cups, styrofoam cups, “paper” plates and plastic utensils are almost all made with a toxic compound called polystyrene (or simply “styrene”). Studies involving workers’ exposure to polystyrene experienced changes in colour vision, tiredness, feeling drunk, slowed reaction time, concentration problems, and balance problems, while animal studies showed a hearing loss and liver damage (11).
10. Brominated flame retardants (BFRs)
As any egg-scrambler knows, you can’t cook much without utensils like spatulas. Unfortunately, these plastics are usually coated in brominated flame retardants (BFRs) that have been linked to liver and thyroid damage, as well as negative changes in the kidneys (12).
Now that you know what toxins and chemicals are lurking in your cookware, it’s time to figure out how you can avoid and/or limit them as much as possible. The suggestions below should get most of the toxic cookware out of your kitchen, while also giving you tips on what you can do in the meantime until you can replace all of your cookware.
Most ceramic cookware contains no metals like lead or cadmium, and several brands mention their glazes are made with non-toxic inorganic minerals and oxides. To be double-sure of this, make sure the brand you’re interested in passes California Prop 65 standards.
Another great thing about ceramic cookware is that it cooks very evenly and is extremely durable, even under high heat.
Use cast iron
Using cast iron for some of your cooking is another good option to avoid leaching of toxic chemicals into your food. It has been used for generations, is durable, long-lasting, and requires minimal cleaning. It can also be used on the stovetop as well as for baking, and distributes heat very evenly. However, make sure you “season” you cast iron cookware correctly before using to create a natural nonstick surface.
To do this, simply coat your cast iron in coconut or olive oil and bake it at 350º for an hour. When finished, remove the skillet, let cool, then wipe off the excess oil with paper towels.
Use glass containers
Not only does glass not leach toxic chemicals, but it also lasts forever (provided it survives any falls!), saving you money in the long run.
Use stainless steel utensils
Stainless steel is free of chemicals like BFRs and Teflon, making them an excellent alternative to plastic spatulas and spoons.
Avoid aluminum containers
As we saw in the list above, aluminum has the ability to leach into any food it comes into contact with, regardless of heat exposure. This means you also need to look beyond your stovetop pans when considering aluminum, including pots and storage containers. This is particularly true if you’re storing or cooking something acidic, such as tomato sauce, as the acidity can cause the aluminum to leach into your food faster (13).
Use non-abrasive cleaners and sponges
If you are using a type of nonstick or metal cookware, avoid using abrasive sponges or scrubbers like steel wool, as these can cause the nonstick material and chemicals to flake off, potentially mixing into your food or further releasing into the air.
Use bamboo containers
While bamboo cookware isn’t as long-lasting or durable as other types, it is excellent as a non-toxic storage option for leftovers. Bamboo contains no harmful chemicals (just make sure the cookware you’re looking at is true bamboo and not “nonstick” or coated with anything).
Use wood or bamboo cutting boards
You can easily avoid the dangers of plastics and BPA by investing in a wood or bamboo cutting board. Just make sure they aren’t coated in any chemicals or toxic glazes before purchasing.
Line with unbleached parchment paper
If you can’t afford to upgrade all of your cookware at once and are concerned about exposure in the meantime, try lining your bakeware with unbleached parchment paper before baking. This will create a “barrier” of sorts between your food and toxic surfaces.
Avoid coated “paper” plates and utensils
As we saw above, polystyrene can lurk in plastic and styrofoam cutlery, cups and bowls. Avoid using these when possible and opt for ceramic, glass, or bamboo.
Use natural cleansers and soaps and low heat
While your first priority should be avoiding toxic cookware, sometimes it isn’t possible to overhaul everything overnight. In the meantime, be sure to only wash your pots and pans with natural dish soaps that don’t contain additional stripping chemicals that can further react with and stir up toxins.
Additionally, try not to cook at high temperatures with toxic cookware, as heat can often cause chemicals to leach even further into food and into the air as gases
When In Doubt
If you aren’t sure whether a certain brand contains any of the above metals or chemicals in their products, always be sure to call the manufacturer and double-check. Just because a brand is labelling their cookware as ceramic doesn’t mean it isn’t coated with a lead or copper coating. After all, a little extra time spent researching could mean avoiding a lifetime of serious health issues.
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