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Non-Stick Cooking and Your Health: Should You Worry?

What are the problems with non-stick?

Harmful kitchen tools are available to us in large quantities these days; harmful plastics have been in the news frequently in the past few years, and the controversy of microwave use rages on. Simple pots and pans might also be of concern as well.

Teflon, also known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is a Dupont brand name for a human-made chemical that has been in commercial use since the 1940’s. The advantages of teflon include its ability to provide a frictionless surface and the fact that it does not react with other chemicals. Teflon is made with another chemical called C8, or Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is burnt off during production, therefore is not found in significant quantity in the final teflon product. According to the American Cancer Society, Teflon is not linked to cancer; however, PFOA is. It is still unclear how in what way, as it is not present present in large quantities in Teflon, but it does have the ability to linger in environments and bodies, and is therefore a subject of concern.  While Dupont does not acknowledge health risks, it recommends following cooking instructions closely to not abuse the cookware and has decided to phase C8 out of its products and lower emission by 2015. “While DuPont remains insistent that Teflon® is safe and inert with proper use, it voluntarily pledged to substantially reduce environmental emissions and to phase PFOA out by 2015. DuPont also urges consumers to use Teflon® responsibly and considers overheating or burning food abusive use of the cookware”)

Despite any formal decrying of Teflon as a harmful product, there is a proven health effect linked to its usage called Polymer Fume Fever. When Teflon is heated above medium-high heat, it releases fumes that cause flu-like symptoms in humans, and are actually fatal to birds. The family of chemicals used in Teflon, found in nearly all Americans tested, has also been associated with health issues such as liver inflammation, weakened immune defense, and abnormal thyroid levels. At the high temperatures causing these fumes and potential health dangers, Teflon is also likely to flake and crack apart.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also reported that Dupont has not reported water contamination caused by its production, affecting some 12000 people in surrounding areas; doesn’t sounds like healthy production, does it? “(EPA) has also accused Dupont of failing to report evidence that the chemicals used to manufacture Teflon had contaminated water supplies affecting 12,000 people in the surrounding areas.”)

How should I cook with non-stick?

If you’re stuck cooking with non-stick, or prefer to use it anyway, there are some steps to take to make sure you’re cooking in the healthiest way possible.

Do not preheat the pan when empty. If you do, start on low heat, and don’t leave it empty for too long. Along this same line, if you have non-stick oven cookware, use it only on medium heat, not in your oven’s highest setting.

Do not use Teflon coated pans that are chipped or cracked. Not using them at high heats, and avoiding scraping the pans or using metal cutlery in them should help keep them in good shape.

When cooking on stove top or in the oven, make sure there is good ventilation in the kitchen. Over the stove, make sure to turn on the ventilator. Taking household pets out of the cooking space is also probably a good idea.

To read the inspiration for this list, click here.

What are some good alternatives?

While alternatives to Teflon might be harder to clean, they come with some advantages that are missing in non-stick cookware. Here are two recommendations:

Stainless steal. While stainless steal is sometimes an expensive alternative, it in fact browns foods better than non-stick. This means that the beautiful crispy edge to your potatoes is much easier to attain in stainless steel, anyway.

Cast iron. Cast iron cookware requires some maintenance, but people have used it throughout history to cook their food, and those who use it, love it. Cast iron can be pre-heated to high temperatures and most stop-top pans are also safe for oven use as well, making them very versatile. Cast iron is also an incredibly durable option when compared with the life-span of non-stick. And, in comparison with stainless steel, cast iron is a natural non-stick option. Read Natural News to discover a list of reasons to cook with cast iron.

To read a chart comparing several kinds of cookware, check out What’s Cooking America, or to read the Environmental Working Group’s comparison between stainless steal and cast iron, click here. The American Cancer Society has an article on the chemicals involved in teflon cookware, and the Environmental Working group has some good tips on the how-to of cooking with non-stick.

Image Source: Jeane-Pierre/Flickr