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  • Writer's pictureSarah

Four toxic cookware types to avoid

Most people know the saying "we are what we eat", but have you ever thought about how what you cook with also ends up in your food. Unfortunately, there are many types of cookware that are actually leaching toxic chemicals into your food without you even knowing it. Lets take a look at the different types of cookware to avoid.

1. Teflon (PTFE) aka the non-stick coating

A Teflon pan is used in most kitchens and has been around since the 1940s. However, Teflon's formulation was changed in 2013 due to the growing evidence of the long term health risk of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). It was shown there was an increase risk of cancer, birth defects, developmental issues in infants, lowering fertility in women and toxic effects on the immune system, liver, and endocrine system. The World Health Organization classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. More than 180 countries have agreed to ban the production and use of PFOA.

Although PFOA has been removed in the making of Teflon (non-stick coatings) it is having a lasting effect on human health and the environment. PFOA is one of the chemicals from the group used in making non-stick coatings that are called 'forever chemicals' as they do not break down in the environment, can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources. It has leached into water ways worldwide and research estimates that more than 200 million Americans are exposed to PFOAs and other non-stick coating chemicals in drinking water.

Teflon is now made with Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Although touted to be safer and now PFOA-free it can produce gases well known to kill birds. In humans the toxic effects can range from influenza-like symptoms (polymer fume fever) to severe conditions such as pulmonary oedema, pneumonitis and death. Teflon releases 6 toxic gases at temperatures easily reached by conventional stove tops, including carcinogens, global pollutants and a lethal chemical MFA.

Another replacement chemical for PFOA is GenX, but this new alternative is also suspected to have similar toxicity. US Environmental Protection Agency notes animal studies have shown negative health effects in the kidneys, blood, immune system, developing fetuses, and especially in the liver following oral exposure. The data is also suggestive of cancer. Doesn’t sound much better than its original counterpart to me.

The new formulations have only existed for a few years and there is very limited research to inform the long term health risks. If they can sell PFOA containing Teflon for over 70 years prior to it being banned due to safety concerns, there is nothing to say that we won't find out later down the track a whole lot more info on the toxicity of the new formulations. In fact the company who first developed Teflon, DuPont, knew for 20 years it was harmful to people, but remained silent. The women working in the Dupont factory where Teflon is produced had high incidence of birth defects and abnormalities, which DuPont was forced to pay millions in damages for once exposed. We recommend avoiding Teflon to minimise your risk and the impact on the environment.

2. Aluminium

Aluminium is another cheap option when it comes to cookware and can have significant toxic effects on the body. Aluminium is a reactive metal and will release more into food particularly when cooking in acidic foods like tomatoes, chilli, chutneys, citrus, wine etc. Research in an April 2017 issue of Environmental Sciences Europe found that aluminium intakes were above acceptable levels when a fish dish marinated in lemon juice was cooked in aluminium. Similarly, when canned ravioli in acidic tomato sauce was cooked in aluminium, high levels of the metal leached into the food.

Why might this be a concern? Aluminium is a widely recognised neurotoxin that inhibits more than 200 biologically important functions and causes various adverse effects in plants, animals, and humans. There is also growing evidence that there is a link between aluminium and Alzheimer's disease.

We are exposed to aluminium from many other sources such as baking ingredients, processed foods, food additives, some pharmaceuticals, water and even tea leaves! So it is best to steer clear of aluminium cookware to reduce your intake given how negatively it can impact your health.

Here are some ways to help work out if your cookware is aluminium or stainless steel:

  • A magnet sticking to the inside of the pot means it is not aluminium. However, if it doesn’t stick then you still can’t be sure it’s aluminium as not all stainless steels are magnetic.

  • Aluminum is softer than stainless steel so is more likely to be easily scratched by rubbing a sharp object on it such as a key.

  • When washed, aluminium tends to dull slightly, while stainless steel usually stays bright.

  • Aluminium is typically a lighter brighter silver than stainless steel.

  • If you are savvy with science and numbers there is a more scientific way to determine between stainless steel and aluminium based on the density here.

3. Copper

Although copper is an essential trace element that is vital to the health of all living things it is best to avoid copper cookware. You might ask why given it is an essential mineral? Like all essential elements and nutrients, too much or too little nutritional ingestion of copper can result in an array of health conditions. Too much copper intake has now been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia. Like aluminium, copper is highly reactive. When acidic foods are cooked in unlined copper cookware or in lined cookware where the lining has worn through, toxic amounts of copper can leach into the foods being cooked. There are numerous sources of copper we are exposed to that can help contribute to an accumulation of copper in our bodies such as copper pipes, dental fillings, copper-contaminated foods and copper fungicides to name a few. It is best to avoid copper cookware as we are far more likely to be ingesting too much copper rather than too little.

4. Ceramic-coated cookware

Ceramic coated cookware is a more border line option and depending what you read it is considered safe by some and toxic by others. I have chosen to put it in the toxic category as there are some red flags. However, there is limited information about its toxicity due to it being such a new product comparative to other cookware like Teflon, copper etc.

What is ceramic coated cookware? It is essentially any metal pan that has a thin ceramic layer on top. The pan base is typically made from aluminium. This alternative non-stick cookware may claim to be a safer option than Teflon as they are free PTFE (not all are) and PFOA , but it's only safe to use while the coating is intact. If the thin layer on the pan chips you could expose yourself to other toxic materials such as aluminium or copper and it may leach heavy metals (e.g. lead, cadmium) into your food. I know I have been guilty in the past of using a pan well past the point of its used by. Not only this, but the ceramic coating easily wears down with use and tiny particles can break off and release into the food. Little is known about how these tiny particles impact your body when ingested. Many companies also use different materials when making the ceramic coating making it even more ambiguous.

Not only are possibly small particles released into your food every time you cook, the coating also releases silicone oil onto the pan’s surface and then into your food. The silicone oil is what gives the non-stick quality. However, over time it wears off and is no longer non-stick, another reason why ceramic cookware has to be replaced regularly, which is not great for the environment. You also find this oil in fabric softeners and hair conditioner. It is still too new to determine how safe this coating is and how consuming it may impact your body. For this reason, I would be hesitant to use this cookware.

If you have gotten to this point you are probably thinking you need to throw out all your cookware! But do not despair there are safer options that are tried and true and have stood the test of time. Click here to learn more about these safer options.

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