Ditch the Nonstick: How Your Cookware Affects Your Health

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You’re likely already very aware that the types of foods you choose to eat – or not eat – have a monumental impact on your health; but if you don’t cook these foods in the right cookware, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. The wrong types of pots and pans can turn even the healthiest foods into something totally different.

What’s the Problem?

Many popular types of cookware are made from or coated in a variety of different chemicals that have the potential to cause a great deal of harm to your body. When they are exposed to heat, a lot of these chemicals leach into your food and enter your body as free radicals, unstable substances that cause damage to your cells. If the number of free radicals in your body outweighs the number of antioxidants – which are substances that neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing harm – it can put you in a state of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has a particularly dire impact on your skin.

The chemical agents in some cookware products are capable of altering both the structure and function of your skin by interfering with cell signaling and slowing down cell turnover and rejuvenation – a process that takes an average of 28 days for the skin. A slower rate of cellular turnover translates to premature aging. The exposure to toxic chemicals in cookware can also slow down the skin’s healing process and contribute to discoloration, blotchiness and photosensitivity – or sensitivity to sunlight.

In addition to the broad effects chemicals in cookware have on your skin, each individual chemical or element has the potential to cause its own health problems. Fortunately, you can help protect your skin and your health by choosing cookware that’s free of chemicals and any other other harmful substances.

Let’s start with the bad.

Nonstick? No Thanks!

Just because nonstick pans are a popular choice doesn’t mean they are a good one. Sure, food slides easily off a nonstick pan, making it easy to flip those eggs and clean off any cooked residue, but the potential risks far outweigh the benefits. Nonstick pans are made by coating a metal pan with a substance called polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), more commonly known as Teflon. This chemical coating is highly reactive to heat, which means if it gets too hot, it starts to break down. Not an ideal characteristic for something that’s used for cooking. During its breakdown, PTFE releases toxic gases and chemicals, one of which is called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The inhalation of PFOA can cause flu-like symptoms, but the long-term effects are much worse. PFOA has been implicated in various health issues, including cancerous tumors, liver damage, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and reduced fertility. What’s even more troublesome is PFOA can stay in the human body for a long period of time. In fact, a research study published in “Environmental Health Perspectives” reported that the chemical was found in the blood of more than 98 percent of American adults[i]. I recommend staying far away from nonstick pans. If you do choose to use a nonstick pan, make sure to keep the heat low and throw it away at the first sign of a scratch or chipping.

Stay Away from Aluminum

Like nonstick cookware, aluminum is another popular choice because it’s inexpensive and it conducts heat well. The problem with aluminum cookware is that the aluminum actually leaches into the food you’re cooking when it’s exposed to heat – again, a less-than-ideal characteristic for cookware. Aluminum leaches even more when it’s exposed to acidic foods, like tomato sauce, orange juice or lemons. The acidity in these foods doesn’t just cause the aluminum to leach from the pan, it actually increases its absorption rate 11-fold – meaning you’ll absorb 11 times more aluminum after letting your tomato sauce simmer in an aluminum pan. So what’s the problem with aluminum? Some studies have found that the element may accumulate in the brain, contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A report in the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” described exposure to aluminum as both the single most aggravating and avoidable factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease [ii]. Aluminum is particularly harmful to those with kidney disease, since unhealthy kidneys are unable to remove a lot of the aluminum from the blood.

Be Choosy with Ceramic

Ceramic cookware is a choice that teeters on the brink of good and bad. Natural ceramic is made of clay and free of any chemicals or heavy metals, but a lot of ceramic cookware, especially those that are imported from other countries, is coated in glaze that contains lead. When this glaze is exposed to high temperatures, as cookware tends to be, lead can leach into your food. Long-term exposure to lead can cause a variety of health problems, including anemia, decreased bone structure, kidney damage, damage to the nervous system and problems with speech. If you do choose to purchase ceramic cookware, look for pans that are uncoated or coated with a lead-free glaze.

Now on to the better choices.

Say “Yes” to Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is not only inexpensive and versatile, it’s also non-reactive, which means cooking in stainless steel won’t result in chemicals in your food. Because stainless steel does not conduct heat evenly, many pots and pans made from the metal contain a copper or aluminum base that helps disperse heat evenly. Because of this, I recommend choosing stainless steel cookware that is made from 100 percent stainless steel. Avoid scouring stainless steel pans with Brillo pads or rough sponges. Once they’re scratched, they may leach chromium and nickel; however, nickel only poses a problem for people with an allergy to the element.

The cost of stainless steel varies widely, depending on the quality of the cookware. For stainless steel, I recommend All-Clad, which is high-quality and durable.

Consider Cast Iron

When it comes to cookware, cast iron may be the most high maintenance of the bunch, but the effort it takes to properly care for and use it is worth it. Cast iron is durable, naturally non-stick and able to withstand temperatures that would break down a nonstick pan ten times over. Cast iron pans can also go directly in the oven, so if your cooking requires you to move from stovetop to oven, you don’t need to switch pans. However, there are some risks for certain populations when it comes to using cast iron.

This may be obvious, but cast iron pans are made of iron. When you cook in a cast iron pan, it leaches iron into your food. While this isn’t a problem for many – and may even be particularly beneficial for some – it can cause iron overload in some people. While iron is an essential nutrient, too much can damage the heart and other organs. Since the only way to eliminate iron from the body is through the blood, adult men and post-menopausal women should only use cast iron occasionally.

A subcategory of cast iron pans is enameled cast iron, which is an iron pan that has been coated in porcelain. Enameled cast iron pans don’t have the same non-stick properties as a properly seasoned cast iron pan, but they are easier to clean and maintain and are less reactive than bare cast iron pans. Cast iron pans are typically the most expensive type of cookware, but the cost ranges significantly based on which type you choose.

Here are some of my favorite cast iron and enameled cast iron options.

Go with Glass

Glass cookware contains no chemicals, which makes it a good choice for high heat cooking. Unlike metal, which can leach chemicals when it comes into contact with certain foods, glass doesn’t react to any foods. Another pro to using glass cookware is that you can freeze food directly in the pan, if necessary. The problem with glass is that it doesn’t distribute heat evenly and can shatter if exposed to varying temperatures too quickly. Glass cookware is typically inexpensive and, when properly cared for, can last a long time. Pyrex is my all-time favorite multipurpose glassware.

Investing in Your Health

A good set of high-quality cookware may seem like a luxury, but it’s actually a necessary investment in your health. If your cabinets are riddled with scratched non-stick pans, it’s time to make the switch. If you can’t afford to splurge on a full set, do some research to find a few basic, entry-level pieces that fit into your budget. Your health will thank you.

[i] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2072821/

[ii] http://iospress.metapress.com/content/vq1p78553222661m/

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