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Healthy cooking doesn’t start and end with what groceries you buy or meals you prep. Many low-quality cookware items are made with materials such as uncoated aluminum, Teflon, and uncoated stainless steel, which can leach metals, microplastics, and toxins into your food when heated or scratched. This can contribute to long-term health effects such as lead poisoning and cancer, as well as immune system, cardiovascular, and kidney disorders.
While non-stick cookware makes cooking and cleaning much easier, it’s important to be discerning about what it’s made of. Most non-stick products contain per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) unless they’re made with high-quality materials such as non-toxic ceramic coating.
Here are the materials and coatings to avoid in your kitchen, and what to look for instead:
Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is a common non-stick coating that has been used in cooking and baking for decades. Teflon pans can reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few minutes, which can break down the coating and release 15 toxic gasses and chemicals, including two carcinogens. At 680 degrees Fahrenheit, Teflon coating begins breaking down and releases toxic chemicals in the air, which can lead to polymer fume fever, or “Teflon Flu.” Teflon fumes are also toxic to pet birds, who have been known to die of respiratory distress just from being down the hall from the kitchen.
Teflon coating used to contain perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and one study of Teflon-coated cookware found PFOA is residual on the surface of cookware and may be released when heated at normal temperatures. Repeated use of the cookware should result in less PFOA release each time until it reaches zero.
While the EPA asked manufacturers to stop using PFOA by 2015, and Teflon manufacturer DuPont stopped using PFOA in 2013, its current formula still results in toxic fumes in the same family of chemicals (PFAS) at high temperatures. Note that Teflon cookware from before 2015 will still contain PFOA, however.
Instead, look for: Non-stick ceramic coating
Aluminum is a highly reactive metal that can easily leach into food. While it’s extremely popular because of its low cost and quick heating abilities, exposure to the byproducts of metal-food reactions may contribute to the development of impaired visual coordination, Alzheimer’s disease, and organ dysfunction. This increases the longer the food is cooked and stored in it.
Properly manufactured aluminum is safe for human health and consumption. However, cheap and recycled aluminum, particularly made with scrap metal, leaches metals into food when heated, which is extremely harmful and prevalent in developing countries/disenfranchised areas. Additionally, the more worn the coated aluminum cookware is, the more prone it is to leach. Old uncoated aluminum pieces should be carefully inspected and potentially disposed of.
It also won’t work with induction ranges, which many homeowners are now buying instead of gas ranges to improve their indoor air quality.
Instead, look for: High-quality anodized aluminum, which is safer, scratch-resistant, and easy to clean. However, anodization can break down over time with consistent use, so pay attention to the condition of the cookware.
Uncoated Stainless Steel
Much like aluminum, stainless steel cookware becomes dangerous when cheaply made or unprotected by safe coating. While uncoated aluminum and even Teflon may become more toxic over time, new uncoated stainless steel shows the largest increase of metal leeching in food––which means trouble right out of the box.
The longer stainless steel is heated and exposed to acidic foods, the more nickel and chromium leach into the meal. This can be especially dangerous for those with nickel allergies and can lead to dermatitis, eczema, and other immune issues.
Instead, look for: High-quality coated stainless steel.
TLDR: In general, you should look for cookware that is well made and coated with quality and non-toxic materials (such as ceramic) Be sure to take good care of your cookware as well, and always check the cleaning instructions before you purchase to be sure you’re able to maintain it. When metal cookware is scratched or corrodes, the risk of toxins leaching into food increases, so pay close attention to the surfaces of your cookware.
Here are our favorite places to find safe, non-toxic cookware:
Caraway makes mineral-based non-stick ceramic pans that are free of PFAS, lead, cadmium, and other harmful chemicals. The selection of pans and bakeware are designed to be easy to clean and complement any kitchen aesthetic. The brand partners with ethical manufacturers who pay fair wages and work regulated hours. Caraway’s packaging is made of recycled cardboard and includes biodegradable cork trivets. You can get up to 20% off from 11/3–12/3.
This cookware brand works with manufacturing collectives to create cookware that is versatile, safe, and simple to use. Its staple product is the “Always Pan,” a single pan with a nontoxic, nonstick ceramic coating that is meant to replace at least eight kitchen items. Our Place’s factories are located in Thailand, China, and Mexico, and its packaging is completely recyclable and biodegradable.
Since its birth in 2007, Green Pan has offered a PFAS, PFOS, and lead-free ceramic non-stick coating. Its selection of innovative cookware includes just about every type of pan, bakeware, and appliances. Green Pan owns its own factory and uses recycled aluminum in all of its pans. It also offers a cookware recycling program for those who want to sustainably depart with their old pots and pans.
The Amoretti Brothers make high-end hammered copper cookware. Tin-lined copper is free of toxins and provides a fast, even cook. The brand works with local artisans in Mexico in its handbuilt factory. Its collection of everyday kitchen items includes engraved pans, pots, and roasting pans.
All-Clad is a heritage cooking brand that creates cutting-edge kitchen products with a lifetime guarantee. Born (and still operating) in Pennsylvania, the brand is committed to quality craftsmanship and creating durable aluminum and stainless steel pieces coated with PFOA-free materials. Its collection features innovative products such as the Simply Strain Multipot and copper core pans.