A few years ago, my friend Porter Stansberry tried to poison me.
I was down in Miami visiting him when he decided to cook us breakfast. Coming back into the kitchen for another cup of coffee, I found him cooking eggs and black beans in a nonstick pan... and using a metal fork to stir and flip the food.
I told him how bad it was for the pan... and worse for our health... to improperly cook with nonstick pans. I even showed him the little nicks on the pan's surface that meant we were ingesting the nonstick material (and ruining our breakfast).
Porter – like many people I've spoken to – was skeptical... But I urge everyone to read the manufacturer's label for nonstick pans. If you do, you'll see a warning to never use metal utensils or cook with high heat.
Our quick-to-sue society has led manufacturers of all kinds of products to inundate us with silly warnings about one-chance-in-a-million dangers. But the warnings on these pans are serious. Let me explain...
According to the most recent industry reports, nonstick pots and pans account for more than 90% of aluminum cookware sales in the United States. And one of the most popular (and well-known) nonstick coatings is "Teflon."
DuPont Chemical – the only company in the U.S. that manufactures Teflon – first introduced it in 1945 and derived the brand name from its chemical designation, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Manufacturers produce PTFE using a chemical with another long name, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
PFOA contains chains of molecules with deadly fluorine atoms attached. Those molecule chains are what keeps food from sticking to your cookware. But it's also what's exposing you to danger...
For most people, the biggest danger arises when the nonstick cookware gets too hot. The coating starts to decompose at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, your pan releases toxic particles and gases (including known carcinogens). These gases soak right into the food you're cooking.
At 350-400 degrees, the fumes are strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever. Polymer-fume fever has symptoms similar to flu – including muscle pain, fever, chills, and fatigue. At this temperature, the fumes are toxic enough to kill birds.
The hotter it gets, the more gases and toxins released... a total of 15 toxic gases. Most of the studies, however, pointed out that the testers used empty pans, meaning more fumes could escape. Still, forgetting you left a pan on the stove to heat up can be deadly.
To DuPont's credit... that's why the company warns people not to use Teflon-coated pots and pans over more than medium heat... But how many people take that warning to heart?
I don't know about you, but I boil water and regularly cook oils and butters using higher heat. So only using low or medium heat settings may not work for most people.
Fortunately, there are several alternatives to cooking with pots and pans made with PTFE...
Stainless steel is an inexpensive alternative. All you need to do is add a little bit of oil or nonstick cooking spray – like Pam – to the pan before using it. Cast iron is another good alternative. But cast iron can be expensive... And without proper care, it can rust. Foods can also stick easily to cast iron if the pan isn't seasoned properly (meaning you should coat the pan with oil after each use).
I prefer using olive oil when I cook with stainless steel or cast iron pans. Not only does it keep the pans in good shape, but I also get the health benefits from olive oil.
You can also use cookware with a nonstick enamel or ceramic coating. Companies like GreenPan and Le Creuset manufacture these products. GreenPan prices range between $50 to $70 a pan, whereas Le Creuset can run up to and over $400. Plus, they require special handling and hand washing.
If you don't want to spend that kind of money to buy a new set of pots and pans, do what I do... Use Teflon-coated cookware, but try to keep the heat as low as possible. I always use silicone or rubber utensils with them. This prevents scratching and chipping, which keeps pieces of the chemical coating out of your food.
However, for hot oil cooking, I use cast iron or stainless steel.
Here are some general and simple safety tips for using nonstick cookware:
- Don't preheat an empty pot or pan. This allows the cookware to heat up too quickly and release toxic fumes.
- Never cook on high heat. If you need to cook higher than the medium setting on your stove, use one of the alternative pans I mentioned above.
- Always keep your kitchen well ventilated – open a window or turn on the fan above your stove.
- Use heavier pans... They take more time to heat up and it's easier to control the heat.
- Never use metal utensils. This causes chipping and scratches.
- Replace your pans every few years or when a chip or severe scratch occurs.
Whenever you cook, make sure to follow proper safety tips like these to avoid getting sick. Enjoy your food without all the chemicals by taking care of your cookware.
What We're Reading...
- Consumer Reports reviews the best nonstick pans.
- Something different: What if countries were sized to match their populations?