Though the field of nutrition is often fraught with a dichotomous point of view that at times can seem to be ever changing, there is one fact that most can readily agree on and that’s the value of cooking at home. A healthy kitchen is a vital component when it comes to supporting robust nutritional habits that promote our overall well-being. Having a healthy kitchen goes well beyond the food items that it contains and the preparation methods used to create nourishing meals. It also includes the tools and equipment used to turn those raw ingredients into flavorful, nutrient dense masterpieces that serve to not only provide the body with the fuel it needs to function optimally, but also can be a means of creating a sense of togetherness.
Cooking at home provides countless advantages. We are better able to control the quality and type of ingredients, we are aware of the preparation methods, it is more cost effective (especially for families), and as a general rule, we do eat healthier when meals are prepared at home. Of course, cooking at home also requires the right equipment. Among the most key and regularly used kitchen “gadgets” are the pots and pans. Anyone who has purchased these items is painfully aware of the vast array of choices in cookware from the material— cast iron, copper, stainless steel, glass, aluminum, to the coating— teflon, ceramic, enameled, diamond this or that, to the manufacturing method— aluminum core, pre-seasoned, copper bottom…it’s dizzying to think about! Although most types of cookware will get the job done, not all options are necessarily the best when it comes to our health.
When making a buying decision, there are several considerations to think about when selecting the type of cookware to be purchased:
- Safety- concerns over what is in the food supply is already a big issue for many people so it is important to also consider what we could potentially be adding to our food or our environment through the use of our cookware.
- Functionality- it is important that cookware be convenient to use and to do the job it was intended to do effectively. Being easy to clean and care for, having a quick heat up, providing for an even cooking surface, and having heat resistant handles are among the most desirable characteristics.
- Cost- though cookware is typically an essential purchase, it can be expensive. No one wants to spend more than necessary for safe, effective, and quality options.
- Durability- because cookware can be expensive and the decision making process about which one to buy can be complicated, so having equipment that maintains its appearance and is able to perform well with long term, frequent use is important.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of cookware. We will start with the types with the most health risks.
Non-stick pans, including Teflon, Silverstone, Tefal, Anolon, Circulon, Caphalon and others, are among the most popular and frequently used type of cookware. They tick many of the boxes when it comes to cost and functionality, being inexpensive, easy to clean and they often come with plastic or rubber coated handles to protect against burns during use. They are typically quick to heat up and cook fairly evenly. However, they also come with substantial safety and durability concerns.
The secret to non-stick fame is a specific type of perfluorocarbon (PFC) called polytertrafluoroethylene (PTFE). The substance itself is not problematic, but when the coating is exposed to high heat, it begins to break down releasing a host of toxic gases and other toxic chemicals.1 The off gassing from PTFE can be extremely toxic to animals (especially birds which can die within minutes of exposure) and humans. It can cause a rare condition known as polymer fume fever which is characterized by a higher fever, breathing difficulties, weakness, and a sore throat.2 According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFC exposure has been associated with kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid issues, obesity, low birth weights, and preeclampsia,3 PFCs and their associated breakdown products can persist in humans for many years and the full scope of health effects from low level exposure is not yet clear so erring on the side of caution and avoiding these entirely may be a prudent choice at this time.
Aluminum as a cookware material seems like a good option since it is lightweight, heats up very fast, and is a superior heat conductor. However from a functionality perspective, it can be challenging to clean (unless it is made with an additional non-stick coating) and is subject to easy staining. Also aluminum cookware can become oxidized if the pan is not properly cared for or if it gets overheated often.
Aluminum has been known to leach into food, particularly if the foods are acidic in nature.4 Further, aluminum has been established as a potent neurotoxin that should generally be avoided.5 It is consistently listed among the top 200 health-jeopardizing toxins by the US Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. There is an extensive body of research elaborating the oral toxicity of aluminum. The risks are particularly high in developing nervous systems (i.e. during pregnancy and nursing) with research models detecting significant alterations in motor function, sensory function, and cognitive function.5
Anodized Aluminum Note:
New manufacturing processes used to produced anodized and hard anodized variations of aluminum cookware are believed to improve the safety of this type of cookware, but there can still be risk, particularly if the items become physically damaged (as commonly happens with long term use) resulting in exposure of the raw aluminum layer underneath. Avoidance of these types is also recommended.
Copper cookware, known in contemporary society for its classic aesthetic and exorbitant price tag, has been used since ancient times. Well-preserved copper pots once used by Roman soldiers dating back thousands of years have been found intact.6 Copper is of course famed for its ability to conduct heat and electricity. With its rapid heat up time and even heat surface, copper has some qualities that make an excellent choice for cookware material. However, copper loses heat very quickly. Copper is also impressively nonstick as a general rule (without being coated in any traditional non stick polymer).
One of the key things to how about copper however, is that it is definitely a reactive metal. Acids in common foods can leach copper into foods resulting in toxic intake over time and impacting the levels of other minerals like zinc via competitive mechanisms. For this reason copper cookware is often lined with another metal like stainless steel or tin each of which come with their own set of challenges.
The following cookware types are less jeopardizing to the health of most people:
Ceramic (not non-stick ceramic) is one of the best choices for cookware. Clay-based ceramic cookware is often called “classic” or “pure” ceramic cookware. As a general rule, 100% ceramic cookware is made from clay containing minerals and quartz sand. After being shaped, it is then put through a firing process to harden the product. Utilizing a glazing process produces the glassy, waterproof, decorative surfaces we associate with ceramic cookware. Properly glazed ceramic cookware is considered non-toxic. In the US and Europe, there are stringent rules regarding ceramic cookware and heavy metals that manufacturers must follow. However, ceramic products from Latin America or China where regulations are not as strict, may be laden with toxic heavy metals like lead, nickel, or cadmium so make sure to research the manufacturer.
Classic ceramic cookware is a great heat conductor and retains heat well. It is also safe for metal utensils, dishwasher safe, microwave safe, oven safe, and can be frozen (though frozen classic ceramic cookware should not be placed directly into a hot oven as this risks cracking, placing the dish in the oven as it is preheating is a good way to warm the material slowly to help prevent breaking). That said, it is constructed as one piece and can be quite heavy and cumbersome to handle, especially when hot (although some modern lines utilize a more lightweight ceramic material and have features like detachable handles to decrease the weight). Classic ceramic cookware can be quite expensive as well.
Non Stick Ceramic Note:
The term ceramic can be a bit of a misnomer in that most of the cookware marketed as such is not actually ceramic (fire hardened clay). Non-stick ceramic cookware describes metal cookware that has been coated in a type of sol-gel. In short, the Sol-Gel is a process that converts the inorganic liquid Solution into a Gel that can be applied to any metallic substance. Sol-gel coatings are applied either by spray or by dipping the item in the mineral gel which is then hardened by a high heat firing process known as curing.7
The sol-gel coatings used to coat ceramic cookware are typically composed of inorganic minerals, namely silicon and oxygen. They are considered self-sacrificing coatings in that the coating gets released into the food during use. These type of coatings have some natural non-stick properties, are more environmentally friendly, and do not employ the same chemicals (like PTFE and PFOA) as those used in traditional non stick coatings. The inorganic nature of the coating also makes it more stable at higher temperatures. It is important to note that non-stick ceramic coatings are not permanent and can be damaged with use. This damage can lead to exposure of the base metal and increase risks to health as a result. There have been limited studies on the long term health effects of these types of coatings.
- Stainless Steel
In terms of safety, stainless steel is another safe cooking option. It is durable, non-toxic, and cooks food quickly. Other metals used in cookware pose a risk of leaching into the food, but the alloy (combination of metals used) in high quality stainless steel cookware is more stable than other cookware materials you are less likely to have any leaching, of any metal, including nickel.8 Lower quality versions may have increased risk for leaching chromium and nickel however. Stainless steel cookware is resistant to scratches, dings, and corrosion. It is dishwasher safe and can be safely used for many years with proper care. Stainless steel is not non stick though so it will require a bit of oil to keep food from sticking during cooking, however if food does stick, stainless steel generally cleans up fairly easily. High quality stainless steel cookware sets can also be an expensive investment but remember, you are paying for increased safety and durability.
- Cast Iron
Cast iron cookware has been used in kitchens for centuries. This cookware is cast as a single piece of metal and then seasoned (through a process of oiling and heating) to protect the bare cast iron and give it a low-stick coating. The solid construction and heavy nature of cast iron pieces means they are slow to heat up, but once they do, they perform spectacularly even at incredibly high temperatures. They can go from stove top to oven and retain heat extremely well. Bare cast iron cookware is fairly affordable and provides the ultimate in durability. As long as it is properly maintained and cared for, this type of cookware is virtually non stick and easy to clean.
Cast iron cookware can be very heavy and larger pieces can be cumbersome to handle. The handles can also get very hot (though silicone covers are available to protect from burns). Cast iron requires maintenance to make sure it is properly seasoned and stored. Cooking certain types of acidic foods can damage the seasoning layer so it may be best to avoid using cast iron for cooking high acid dishes. Another caution regarding practical use of cast iron cookware involves careful selection of what to cook in it because savory dishes may linger and impart their taste to sweet foods and some may notice a distinct metallic taste with more delicate foods such as fish or eggs. As with other metal types, cast iron also has the potential to leach iron into food. This iron is not easily assimilated in the body but may contribute to iron overload for some individuals, particularly those with a history of iron overload or hemochromatosis.
Enameled Cast Iron Note:
Enameled cast iron involves application of a vitreous enamel where glass particles are fused to the underlying layer via application of high heat thus creating a non-porous finish that protects the iron underneath. Enameled cast iron cookware holds heat just like pure cast iron but it has some features that are slightly different as well. The main one being that it does not require additional seasoning and thus require less maintenance than their classic counterparts. It can be washed with soap and some varieties are also dishwasher safe. This type of cast iron cookware does not react with food, is non-toxic, and because it does not require seasoning, it does not retain nor impart flavors between different types of foods. Enamel-covered cast iron cookware can be very expensive but it lasts many years and holds. It is not non-stick but it is visually pleasing as it is available in a variety of colors.
Glass cookware is most commonly used in baking, though inexpensive stove top pans are also available. Some key advantages of glass cookware are that it is oven safe, does not react with foods— even those that are acidic in nature, and can be used for storing foods. Modern glass cookware is completely non toxic (however older glass cookware may have heavy metals and should not be used) but can have durability issues and does not heat evenly nor hold heat well. It is not at all efficient for stovetop cooking, as they easily form hot spots causing the glass to crack. Additionally, glass vessels are useless for high heat preparation methods like frying.
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Andrea Pryce, N.D., received her baccalaureate degree from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a 2006 graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Following completion of her N.D. degree she went into private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a strong background in biomedical research with significant experience in both bench top and field research. She has worked as a bench top research associate performing genetic oncology assays for a major biomedical research foundation. Additionally, she served as a project coordinator for a homeopathy study co-conducted by the Southwest College Research Institute and the University of Arizona’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She maintains a research interest in the epigenetics and nutrigenomics particularly as they relate to oncology. In 2009, she moved to Florida and began working at Life Extension in Fort Lauderdale where she was Medical Editor for their monthly magazine. Dr. Pryce joined the faculty at Hawthorn University in April of 2014 and also serves on the faculty of Everglades University. She has recently joined the team at the Integrative Health Institute in Boca Raton, Florida.