We live in a world, unfortunately, where we’re exposed to all sorts of materials that can cause our body harm, from BPA in plastic food storage containers to pharmaceuticals in our water.
This means that while we’re already worrying about getting the right food into our mouth, we also have to make sure we’re cooking our real food in the right pots, pans, and casserole dishes.
But how do you figure out what the unsafe cookware IS in your kitchen, anyway?
What Is Cookware and Bakeware Made Of?
Your kitchen is probably stocked with numerous materials in your pots, pans, baking sheets and casserole dishes. Here are some of the most common and whether they’re keepers or get-rid-of-them-ers, in alphabetical order:
You’ll find aluminum right on the cooking surface of pots and cookie sheets most often, and as part of the heat conducting element in many pots and pans. I’ve written about aluminum pots and pans and the risks of aluminum before, including the many diseases that have been linked to aluminum.
There was some speculation/research years ago about aluminum being a major cause of Alzheimer’s, but even the Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Society cite research demonstrating no link between aluminum and the disease.
Although I grew up eating out of aluminum pots almost exclusively, I do try to avoid cooking with it as much as possible now (a better safe than sorry technique). It’s unclear whether aluminum has any truly valid health risks, but there’s definitely a complication with aluminum cookware:
In part because any acidic foods, like tomatoes, wine, vinegar, and citrus foods, will leach aluminum into the food, I don’t trust it. I don’t want to have to think about which pot or pan I can use for a certain recipe. If you’ve ever stored anything in an aluminum pot, especially something acidic, you can practically taste and smell the metal in the meal.
For me, aluminum is a no-go. If you’re unsure whether a surface is aluminum, one test is that aluminum is not magnetic. You can also call the company that makes your pots and pans and ask them if there’s aluminum and if it touches the food or not. (Since aluminum is a good conductor of heat, it’s often used in the base of a pot, but sandwiched between layers of stainless steel or copper.)
2. Anodized Aluminum
Anodized aluminum is a bit of the new kid on the block. Aluminum is processed with electrical charges and an acid bath, causing the surface of the pot or pan to oxidize, or anodize, becoming much harder and more durable, as well as not leaching into foods.
I think I agree with Dr. Weil:
I don’t care for the idea, but I haven’t seen any scientific research suggesting that anodized aluminum cookware specifically is harmful. Anodization subjects the surface of aluminum pots and pans to a process that builds up the metal’s natural coating of oxide. This should yield a hard, nonreactive substance that forms a tough coating. As a result, an anodized aluminum cooking surface is non-stick, scratch-resistant and easy to clean.
According to manufacturers, anodization seals aluminum so that the metal cannot leach into food. Anodized aluminum shouldn’t react to acidic foods, so you can theoretically use these pots and pans for preparing rhubarb and sauces with tomato, wine or lemon juice – ingredients that you shouldn’t cook in traditional aluminum pots.
3. Cast Iron
As one who eats traditional foods in part because they’ve been around a long time and aren’t as altered/processed by humans, cast iron fits right into my worldview.
My cast iron pan is old, heavy, and has plenty of rules that come with it, but I love cooking in it.
The iron can and does leach into the food, but in this case, it’s a trace mineral that our bodies need. When folks are fighting low iron, doctors often recommend cooking in cast iron.
This may be an old wives’ tale. The iron in cast iron is likely not bioavailable, i.e. it isn’t usable by our body, and the best way to get iron is to eat appropriate whole foods. The metals taken in via pots and pans are expelled as waste products, and some people’s systems (auto-immune diseases in particular) cannot expel the heavy metals and they become harmful. (This is from email conversation with the founder of Ceramcor. My official statement: Oh, phooey.)
The downfalls of cast iron:
- Can’t use soap
- Have to “season” with oil after each washing
- Can be difficult to cook/clean things like scrambled eggs – I’d never bother with cast iron pancakes, for example, because I’d have a sloppy mess on my hands. It’s not that I’m afraid to add fat; it’s just that you have to add it so much and so often. I always hit this point where suddenly the scrambled eggs, which had been moving over the surface as if it was Teflon, being to stick. Then I have to spend 5-10 minutes washing one pan. Annoying.
The upsides of cast iron:
- Adds iron to your diet (maybe?)
- No adverse health effect known
- Can easily cook something dry, then wipe out (no dishes!) and use again
- Can cook at high temps
- Holds heat really well
Do you cook with cast iron? What maintenance tips and tricks can you share?
Related: Recipes in Cast Iron Skillet
4. Ceramic Ware
Ceramcor, the company that makes Xtrema, uses a proprietary ceramic clay, so I can’t say exactly what’s in it, but it’s tested free and clear of lead and heavy metals. This is the type of pan Mercola recommends (but he also sells it, so…). Here’s my Xtrema pan review.
The important point to remember when using ceramic is to make sure the company guarantees lead-free glaze – it’s worth a Google search or phone call to check out the brand you’re using.
UPDATE: This is my new favorite healthy non-stick pan review.
5. Enameled Cast Iron
One of the downfalls of cast iron is the need to “season” it with oil after each washing (and some people – my husband, ahem – get thrown that you can’t use soap).
Enameled cast iron coats a cast iron pot or pan with porcelain (glass) so that you get the even cooking and heat retention of cast iron, the safety of non-reactive glass, but the convenience of being able to wash it as you would any other pan (you still can’t use metal utensils though).
I had a huge enameled cast iron pan kind of like this one, but I found that it was (a) very heavy, (b) hard to store, and (c) I only used it for tomato-based dishes (and no lid fit it) and defaulted to my regular cast iron 99% of the time. I gave it away when we moved.
Mine was white inside and not non-stick at all, but I see some updated versions are black and looks like Teflon – I wonder if it’s any more non-stick or if it’s just an illusion. I really need something to cook eggs in!
I can see the appeal of enameled cast iron if a family just hated to season the cast iron, but for me, I just stuck with the status quo.
If you look into one, you may want to choose a size that will fit a lid you already have, since that will have it more versatile in the kitchen.
Glass is wonderfully non-reactive, rarely scratches, and although it doesn’t conduct heat amazingly, it does an acceptable job for cooking oatmeal or soup. I don’t see many glass pots or pans sold nowadays, but my MIL has a set with lids and everything. In fact, hers looks exactly like this “vintage” pot at Amazon (don’t tell her that her stuff is already “vintage,” ok?) I frequently see glass pots and pans at thrift stores, so keep your eyes open there if you’re on a budget.
I choose glass for storage, mixing bowls, and casserole dishes. I particularly love my Pyrex casserole dishes with lids – I put leftovers directly into the fridge and can heat them up again in the oven or toaster oven if the whole family is eating. You know how I hate dishes!
A note from a reader who experienced the “exploding Pyrex” firsthand reminded me to pass on this note: don’t heat your glass dishes over 350ºF, or they could explode. For real. This from me, who just baked 3 glass dishes of gluten-free cornbread at 400F tonight. Hmmm…
When I first started reading about keeping my family healthy and discovered that Teflon was a fairly if not very hazardous substance, I was totally overwhelmed. Not only was everything I was learning about going to kill me and my babies (or at least give us cancer), but I had a kitchen literally full of non-stick pans.
Even the pots we got for our wedding had a non-stick surface. I used them every. single. day.
It took several sequential baby steps, but I eventually phased them out of my kitchen completely. I did lots of yard sale/thrift store shopping and asked for a few nice pieces of safer cookware for birthdays/Christmas.
There’s a whole separate post about Teflon and non-stick surfaces, but here are some quick notes:
- Teflon has an adhesive in it called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
- PFOA has been found in the blood of 9 out of 10 Americans and even breastmilk.
- In high doses, it’s linked to cancer, low birth weight, and a suppressed immune system, and it may even raise LDL (bad) cholesterol in children.
- At temps over 450/500ºF, carcinogenic fumes from Teflon kill birds.
- When scratches get in the non-stick surface, the material beneath is exposed, usually aluminum. Plus, Teflon could get directly into your food.
Although the EPA is on record stating that even consuming small flecks of Teflon that get caught in your food has not been known to cause any health maladies, in my humble opinion, Teflon is still something to be very wary of, if not downright frightened.
If I’m not mistaken, there was a time that everyone thought – and the government stated – that tobacco was not harmful to people’s health, either.
The government isn’t always right, folks.
Things are moving in the right direction – the EPA has labeled PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, which bonds the Teflon onto the pan) a likely carcinogen and is asked major producers to phase it out by 2015.
That’s a good thing since PFOA has been seeping into water sources all over the country and has been detected in the blood of 90 percent of Americans. (source)
PFOA has been linked to low birth weight, other birth defects, cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and even high cholesterol in children – the cancers particularly in areas near plants where PFOA is produced. (source)
While I’m avoiding Teflon on my own stove, I know the rest of the world isn’t, so I’m comforted by the fact that I have a powerful Berkey filter to get other people’s junk out of my water supply.
**PFOA is also in food containers, and stain-resistant furniture, carpet, and clothing!** (source)
I made that part bold because was totally new information to me. I know my husband has plenty of khakis and dress shirts that are “stain resistant.” My laundry-hating self thought that was splendid until about I read that…
I’ve really run the gamut on silicone, first being a huge proponent of the baking mats as a safe alternative to scratched, non-stick, aluminum baking sheets, then being wary of the material, then doing more research and deciding silicone was safe.
Now almost another year later, I received a comment from a reader sharing the following:
Silicone is actually not safe at all. I’m an erstwhile analytic chemist so even though I am not a polymer chemist I still have some small knowledge of how this area of science more or less operates.
Sidestepping for the moment the issue of contaminants, in order to make any plastic, solvents are needed, along with heat, time, and a reaction vessel (container). Once heated, mixed, reacted, poured and molded, some solvent always, always, ALWAYS remains. It is embedded in the plastic – yes, silicone is a type of plastic – and this solvent will immediately absorb into food from the surface, and over time those solvents will leach out from the inside of the plastic and continue to absorb into your food. For a very long time, like for the life of the bakeware you are using. Some of these solvents are what keep the plastic flexible, so when they’re mostly gone, so is your bakeware. Do your own research on hexane and methylene chloride (aka: dichloromethane) which I once used in massive quantities in labs. You will not like what you read on the MSDS and yes, I’ve read them. And I don’t like it either.
Silicone chemistry is not trivial, and it is big, huge, enormous business. These compounds permeate our lives in this post-industrial, age of chemistry era in which we live. Are these chemicals safe? More importantly, are they safe for life, especially human life? Well, as for silicones, they are entirely man-made; nowhere in nature have any ever been found. There is an entire, very large book written on the analysis of silicones: The Analytical Chemistry of Silicones (Chemical Analysis: A Series of Monographs on Analytical Chemistry and Its Applications). A. Lee Smith (Editor).
Do keep in mind that even in the face of overwhelming evidence, manufacturers of a product or a group of products will go to their grave insisting that the evidence is flawed, that it’s anecdotal at best, that it’s skewed, and that it’s just plain wrong or fabricated. They will sell out the health and the life of anyone who gets in their production way. Always. The only time a company ever does the right thing is when the government finally gives in to the truth and forces them to change. Change costs money and time (money again) and no business willingly changes just because it’s the right thing to do. Ever.
It all really comes down to this question: Who do You Trust?
Do you choose to trust the makers of products who want your money at all costs? If you really believe that businesses exist not to make money, then maybe. Or do you trust your own skepticism? I’ll tell you what, I trust YOUR skepticism more than I trust any manufacturer on this planet. I trust mine even more than yours. You should trust yours as much as I trust mine, you don’t need a degree in chemistry (or anything else for that matter) just to question.
This was the second or third such comment I’d received over the years talking about this subject, and it finally hit home. I threw out my silicone mats was going to throw out both of them but ended up only pitching the ugliest, stained up one. I think I wanted to keep one for covering casserole dishes without lids like I demonstrated in 7 Ways to Avoid Plastic Wrap. I’m weak!
UPDATE: Maybe it’s okay that I kept it – another point of view from Ceramcor: Silicone is not a plastic, but a rubber material from inorganic compounds. (I have heard this before, that it’s not plastic; that’s why Life Without Plastic, for example uses silicone in their food storage lids.) He also quotes Rebecca Woods, renowned in the field of health and wellness (and quoted in The Everything Beans Book, I might add), as supporting food-grade silicone as safe. What to believe?!
What do you think about silicone? Whom do you trust?
9. Stainless Steel
For quite some time, I’ve been thinking stainless steel was a perfectly non-reactive metal and an excellent choice for my pots. I even bought some at a garage sale, because the pot set we received for our wedding was all non-stick, and I wanted to move away from that. I use my stainless steel mixing bowls a lot, too…
However, now I keep seeing little things like this:
Stainless steel is really a mixture of several different metals, including nickel, chromium and molybdenum, all of which can trickle into foods. However, unless your stainless steel cookware is dinged and pitted, the amount of metals likely to get into your food is negligible.
I know Dr. Mercola is against stainless steel because of the leaching properties, for nickel in particular. (He does say (link removed) it’s a better choice than aluminum, if you’re keeping score.)
I think I’m heading to the kitchen to test some magnets on my pots; Dr. Mercola also shares:
There are two kinds of stainless steel — one kind is attracted to magnets, the other kind is not. You want to buy only the magnetically-attractive type of stainless steel, which apparently has a very low nickel content and does not leach nickel into food.
I’ve been wanting to get stainless steel baking sheets to replace my nasty ones, but now I don’t know. I may just continue using my old ones and cover them with parchment paper (which is coated with silicon, le sigh).
As long as there’s no lead in the glaze, stoneware is an awesome, traditional option. Pampered Chef sells high-quality stones and even casserole dishes, although I have more trouble with them because you’re not supposed to use soap on stoneware.
However, I cannot live without my TWO stoneware sheet pans. I make the best rolls, biscuits, cookies, pizza, and soaked homemade granola (although I usually do it in the dehydrator now) on them. Huh-yum! With my ugly non-stick, scratched up cookie sheets, I burned the biscuit bottoms every time. No more!
If you’ve never tried stoneware, I highly recommend it.
A reader recommends Rada Cutlery as another brand with incredible stoneware.
Added bonus: It even keeps your pizza warm longer once out of the oven.
How to Make the Switch to Safer Cookware/Bakeware
Pots and pans can be some of the most expensive items in your kitchen, I realize that. When I started learning about safe surfaces vs. unsafe ones, I was appalled to realize that almost 100% of the pots and pans I used regularly had a non-stick surface. I hadn’t had them that long and didn’t have a few hundred buckeroos (or more) to drop on a nice new set.
I decided to take it one day at a time. I was already using my mom’s old cast iron pot sometimes, so I decided to try to default to it more. I chose the large pot that is stainless steel instead of the Teflon-lined one for most of my soup cooking.
It was a series of simple switches that did it. I didn’t really look to buy anything, but I kept an eye out for stainless steel pots at garage sales and put a second cast iron pan on my birthday list. It took me a while, but even found a solution for cooking scrambled eggs without Teflon.
I’m seriously on the hunt for something safer (and we never turn the heat up). When I used my Teflon griddle for pancakes, look what the air purifier taught me.
I’m not at the end of my journey, but I’m still working on it. Wherever you are in the move toward safer cookware and bakeware, choose one unsafe material you have in the kitchen to omit (or use less often, at least).
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