How to Choose the Healthiest Cookware
Living a clean and healthy lifestyle is a constant evolution. Each good decision builds on the last to strengthen your health. Food is a wonderful place to start on a journey to wellness, but don’t let yourself stop there. While it is incredibly important to choose the right food to provide the building blocks for your body, it’s also important to consider the other components involved in cooking that food.
You may have landed here in search of an answer to choosing healthy cookware, or this may be the first time you’ve considered the implications of your cookware choices on your health. Either way, I’m glad you’re here and I want to share a little of what I’ve learned so you can make the best choice for your kitchen.
Why does cookware matter?
Absolutely! Well, unless you are on a raw diet! But for the majority of us that cook our food, every interaction our food has with a sheet pan, pot or muffin tin is an opportunity for leached chemicals to enter our food. Studies have shown that the potential exposure to metals during cooking can pose a significant health risk (R). The goal should be to eat the food, not the cookware. Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of this cookware conundrum isn’t as black and white as one would hope. Much of the research is minimal or conflicting. So instead of focusing on what you don’t know, focus on what you know and what you can learn.
What cookware are we talking about and what do I need to consider?
While the most commonly thought of items are pots and pans, the risk of contamination doesn’t end there. If you’re cooking on it, in it or with it, then the factors we discuss here should be considered moving forward.
When evaluating your current cookware stash or looking at any potential purchase, first consider the material it is made from and how that material is treated before it gets to your kitchen. Similar to reading a food label, only look at the facts of the products you’re considering and try to drown out the noise of advertising. Companies throw safe buzzwords like “green” and “nontoxic” around that really have no weight in the real world. These statements are unregulated and undefined.
What are some of the worst materials to cook with?
While many materials are still toeing the line between healthy and harmful, there are a few repeat offenders who are easy to identify.
The studies are in and aluminum is out. Some researchers have gone as far to say that cooking with aluminum is an urgent public health risk (R). Metals can leach from cookware at an increased rate when heated or when acids are present (R), which is the case in many of the most commonly prepared dishes (looking at you, spaghetti sauce). Aluminum exposure has been linked to neurotoxic conditions and oxidative stress. It has been shown to inhibit more than 200 biologically important functions and
has been linked to adverse health conditions, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease (R). So, to sum it up — steer clear of aluminum.
But before its completely dismissed, there are upsides to aluminum. It is abundantly available, a good heat conductor and relatively inexpensive. For these reasons, it is commonly used at the core of many cookware products, with an additional protective coating. Which brings us to our next offender... Teflon.
Whether or not you know exactly what Teflon is, you certainly have heard the word. Teflon is a type of polytetrafluoroethylene (a word you probably have not heard), otherwise known as PTFE. Unfortunately, research has come to show that the treatments required to create Teflon and other PTFEs aren’t as safe as they were first thought to be.
The first red flag is the ease in which Teflon and other PTFEs scratch. First of all, when those little scratches happen, the small chunk that went missing likely ended up in your food. Under that protective surface lies a hunk of aluminum so each scratch is exposing a bit more aluminum into your food.
Second, every time these types of pots and pans are heated, they release a small number of toxic fumes. In large quantities, like when a pan is overheated, these fumes can do harm (R). Additionally, a carcinogen known as perflurooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is present in Teflon. Animal studies have shown an association with testicular, liver and pancreatic cancers while human studies have shown as association with kidney cancer. These studies were in most part due to a class action law suit against the manufacturer (R).
What are some safer options?
There are some cases when “leaching” can be a good thing, and cast iron is one of those cases. Not only is it a safe option, but it is also a health-promoting option. Some studies have shown that eating food prepared in cast iron cookware may have a role in reducing iron deficiency. Cast iron does require a bit more attention than your average pan, but your health is well worth it, and so is the resulting flavor.
The comfort of ceramic cookware extends further than its place in our family history. Cooking with ceramic brings me comfort in knowing my food is remaining as it was before I added it to the pot. As long as you choose a reputable brand, ceramic is durable and won’t scratch or leach chemicals into your food. Some off brands or imports have been found to have lead contaminants, so do your brand research before you buy.
The benefits of cooking with glass are as clear as – well – glass! With no contaminant risk and great heat conduction, glass is an excellent choice.
While not as definitively safe as cast iron, ceramic or glass, stainless steel absolutely deserves a place on the nice list. It can be a more affordable option, for this of you not wanting to break the bank on a kitchen overhaul. Research is mixed on the potential of leached metals from stainless steel cookware, mainly when cooking acidic foods, so try to keep it to the non-acidic recipes.
Where do I start!?
When entering any new wellness arena, things can seem a bit daunting. But don’t go and throw your whole kitchen away just yet. Transitioning into healthier cookware can be a gradual process. Consider the most used items in your kitchen. Are any of them aluminum? If you have Teflon or other nonstick cookware, take a good look at the surface. Can you see visible scratch marks or signs of aluminum or another metal peeking through? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you’ve found your starting place. You don’t have to commit to just one material. A mix will allow you the freedom to choose the right pan for the right job. An acidic soup can go in your ceramic pot while the rice cooks in your stainless steel pot. Variety is the spice of life.