I’ve gotten a few questions lately about healthy cookware, which is a great question to ask.  Non-stick cookware was introduced as a healthy alternative to regular, the justification being that less oil would need to be used to cook meats and vegetables.  However, we now know it’s not that simple, as the chemicals used to make a pan non-stick have health consequences of their own.

Let’s start with Teflon, the most common non-stick coating.  It has an interesting history, for sure!  Technically Teflon is a chemical called polytetraflouroethylene, or PTFE, and it was invented all the way back in 1938.  It had some industrial uses before it started to appear in commercial cookware in the early 50s.  Dupont, the company that patented the technology, “avoided the market for consumer cookware due to potential problems associated with release of toxic gases if stovetop pans were overheated in inadequately ventilated spaces” (Wikipedia).  PTFE is still used today in non-stick cookware, and the concerns about high-heat cooking are still valid.  Basically, heat the pan much hotter than 300 degrees and toxic fumes can be release – this is regardless of whether the pan is scratched, although scratches will make the integrity of the product even worse.

PTFE is not the only non-stick coating; PFOA is also widely used.  Unfortunately PFOA is no better than PTFE health-wise, possibly it’s worse.  This is a good article about the dangers of PFOA, which include cancer,  low birth weight, birth defects, suppressed immune system and possibly raised cholesterol levels.  Again, the chemical is transmitted through high-heat cooking that causes toxic fumes to rise off of the cooking surface.  The fumes can also kill birds, which are known to be sensitive to such chemicals.  And the pans don’t have to get that hot: somewhere in the high 300’s/low 400s – around the smoke point of many vegetable oils.  Pans that are left on the stove for only a few minutes can reach temperatures as high as 700 degrees, and it only takes a fraction of a second to release those fumes. 

There are some new technogies for non-stick pans, such as the Scan Pan.  These use a ceramic-titanium technology that contains no PFOA but still contains some PTFE.  Because of their patented manufacturing process the cookware is supposed to be safe under 500 degrees, although they still recommend leaving birds out of the kitchen when cooking! 

Another new technology is Thermolon, or “Greenpan”, which does not use PFOA or PFTE.  However, there are still some concerns about whether their nano-technology and silicon materials used are safe.  It’s a relatively new product that appears to need more testing to really know for sure.

Here’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned:

  1. Buy stainless steel cookware and use it for your normal cooking.  Extra virgin olive oil is good for you, so use some of it for regular sauteeing (although be sure not to heat it above it’s smoke point, at which point the oil’s chemical properties change and it becomes a health hazard). 
  2. Limit your non-stick cookware to applications where you really need it, say pancakes, crepes, and eggs.  Cook on medium-low temperatures.
  3. Never use non-stick cookware for high-heat cooking.  If you want do any type of browning or searing do it on your stainless and just wait until the product is fully cooked before trying to flip it – this should ensure its release.  (Make sure you’re using a high-heat oil such as canola for this application – don’t let any oil smoke).
  4. Don’t use any non-stick cookware with a surface that’s compromised with scratches.  This just makes chemical emissions more likely.
  5. Also avoid aluminum cooking surfaces.  The connection between Alzheimer’s Disease and aluminum is still uncertain, so better safe than sorry.
  6. Other good cooking surfaces are cast iron, glass and ceramic, which are stable and chemical emission-free.

I hope that helps!  I think it’s worth investing in a good-quality stainless cookware set, which will last you a lifetime.  Eat Happy! 🙂