I’m pretty vigilant about what I put in and on my body, from local produce to certified organic products. My reason is simple: I don’t want pesticides or other toxins in my food, and I don’t want to contribute to toxins in my environment. If you’re reading this, I imagine you feel the same way.
In our journey to keep our diets healthy and free from toxins, it’s equally important to consider the pots and pans we use to cook our food. Beyond safety, healthy cookware also needs to heat evenly, last a long time, and not break the bank. In this article, we’ll cover the types of cookware to avoid, and the healthier alternatives to choose in their place.
This article covers:
Unhealthy Cookware to Avoid
Safe Cookware… Under Certain Conditions
Healthy Cookware Options
- Ceramic (my #1 choice)
- Cast iron (healthy with exceptions)
- Carbon steel (healthy with exceptions)
- Stainless steel (healthy with exceptions)
- Glass (healthy)
- Titanium (great for camping)
Unhealthy Cookware to Avoid
The three types of cookware that most experts recommend avoiding are copper, aluminum, and Teflon (non-stick coating).
Growing up, we had a full set of aluminum pots and pans plus a few small copper pieces for sauces and sautés. The aluminum was lightweight and easy to use day-to-day. The copper was beautiful, but we had to polish it to keep it looking that way (with toxins, I’m sure). I really wish we knew then, what we know now!
Aluminum is a known neurotoxin that easily leaches into our food when pots and pans are scratched by metal spoons and spatulas. The metallic ions are also released when heated aluminum comes into contact with the lactic acid in milk, or with acidic foods, such as tomato paste, spices, and citrus. (I squeeze lemon into everything, so that caught my attention.)
While our bodies tend to process aluminum fairly well, many of us take in more than we release, often from cooking with aluminum foil and aluminum cookware. Aluminum can accumulate in our brain, bones, and liver (source). It can also compromise the blood-brain barrier, making it easier for contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, and chemicals to leak into the fluid that circulates through our brain.
What about anodized aluminum?
Anodized aluminum is a safer option than regular aluminum… for a while. When aluminum is ‘anodized‘, it is placed in an acidic solution and exposed to an electric current. The process is called electrolysis and it forms a protective layer that makes the aluminum more durable and resistant to scratches. Still, the anodization breaks down over time, keeping it in the “don’t buy” category.
Copper pots sure are pretty. They are also highly conductive, meaning they heat evenly across the surface. This makes them a favorite among chefs. But like aluminum, heated copper can easily leach particles when scratched or when the metal comes into contact with acidic foods.
While our bodies do require a small amount of copper, most of us get enough from our daily diet. Too much copper can also accumulate in our liver and interfere with our body’s ability to detoxify. Elevated levels of copper can lead to issues with our nervous system, adrenal functions, reproductive organs, and connective tissues.
It’s worth noting that copper cookware is usually coated, making it less likely to leach into our food… when it’s new. Unfortunately, the coating can begin to scratch off after a few good scrubs.
Teflon (non-stick coating)
Teflon. What a nightmare. It doesn’t take much for the non-stick coating to chip into our food. And leaving a non-stick pot or pan on a very hot stove too long can produce toxic vapors that have been known to kill pet birds. (Yep, Google it.)
The bad guys here are PTFE and PFOA. Teflon was developed by DuPont in the 1930s and is the trademarked name for a concoction of perfluorochemicals – with PTFE being the main ingredient.
Safe Cookware… Under Certain Conditions
There are a few cookware options that are generally considered safe…. but there are a few things you should know, before you buy.
Eco non-stick cookware (Is it safer?)
Non-stick pots and pans that are free from PFOA, PFAS, lead, and cadmium are marketed as a non-toxic alternative to traditional Teflon. And the alternatives typically are safer.
Still, it’s a good idea to see what the company is using in place of Teflon and to check the reviews to see how long users say the coating lasts before it begins to scratch off. It’s also good to note what makes up the core of the cookware. In other words, if you scratch through the surface, will you end up cooking on copper or aluminum? Or is the core made from one of the safer options, such as stainless steel or cast iron? To ensure the healthiest cooking surface, choose the latter.
Most non-stick alternatives to Teflon are ceramic coatings. It’s helpful to note that a ceramic coating is different than pure ceramic cookware. Here’s the difference…
Pure ceramic cookware vs. ceramic-coated cookware
Ceramic coating is typically applied over an aluminum, cast iron, or stainless steel core. By contrast, ceramic cookware is ceramic through and through, so it’s completely metal-free. Because there is no coating to scratch off, pure ceramic cookware (discussed in a moment) is generally a better option than a ceramic coating.
While cheaper ceramic coatings may scratch fairly easily, a high-quality ceramic coating will be much tougher. Granted, it can still chip if you drop it or bang it against something. But it’ll be pretty difficult to scratch through to its base from regular use.
There are a lot of reputable brands that claim their ceramic coating is scratch-resistant. Again, I tend to find the best proof in their customer reviews. Folks definitely aren’t shy about sharing photos of how their cookware has scratched after a few uses. They’ll also boast about how it’s lasted forever under harsh conditions.
To help the coating to last longer:
- Use wood utensils in place of metal to avoid scratching.
- Wash by hand instead of in the dishwasher.
- In place of metal scrubbers, remove any stuck on foods by soaking the pot or pan in water before washing and/or by scrubbing it with a non-abrasive helper such as baking soda or Bon Ami (whose main ingredient is baking soda).
While silicone is touted as safe by many, it can, and usually does, contain unwanted additives that can leach into our food.
According to Dr. Stuart Yaniger, author of a 2011 Environmental Health Perspectives study, “…although silicones can be formulated to be free of leachable endocrine disruptors, most aren’t, including most medical grades.” (source)
Yaniger goes on to say that unless the manufacturer has specifically formulated the product to be free from EA (estrogenic activity) and has had it tested by an independent third party to prove it, you can assume it leaches.
For me, it’s just common sense and a bit of ‘gut’. The overly bright colors of most silicone bakeware don’t “feel” safe to me and the idea of heating food in a neon rubbery material kind of freaks me out. I stay away from cheap silicone products and only use those that have been tested to be free from EA (estrogenic activity). This independent testing is muy importante!
In place of silicone, I bake cakes and cookies in ceramic and I roast veggies in either ceramic or a thick glass pan that I’ve had for ages.
By the way, I’ve seen it said that you can test whether silicone has plastic fillers or other contaminants by twisting it. If the silicone turns white where it’s been twisted, then it has fillers that may leach into your food. If it retains its color, it does not have fillers. Please be aware this test may not be entirely reliable, so take that advice with a grain of salt.
Silicon vs. Silica vs. Silicone
Silicon is metallic element #14 on the periodic table. Your spatula is not made from silicon; your computer chips are. (Hence the name “Silicon Valley”.)
Silica is a natural mineral formed when silicon is exposed to oxygen. The most common crystalline form of silica is quartz and it’s also the main component of sand, granite, and clay. In its powder form, natural silica is used to manufacture ceramic cookware and coatings.
Silicone is a synthetic substance (a polymer) of silica, carbon, and oxygen. It can be manufactured as a liquid, gel, or a rubbery solid. We see this solid, rubbery form used for bakeware, spatulas, and baby bottle nipples.
Healthy Cookware Options
Ceramic Cookware / Earthenware
Ceramic-ware is pricey but is a top choice for those passionate about cooking. It also happens to be my favorite option and is even healthier than the other options when it’s been properly crafted. The reason is this…
Pure (classic) ceramic cookware is made from a mix of clay and earth minerals. Once shaped, it is glazed and baked in a kiln. Toxic cadmium- and lead-containing glazes were commonly used in the past to add a bright orange, red, or yellow, and to give the ceramic a smooth, shiny finish. If the ceramics are not baked long enough and/or at temperatures that are not high enough, the lead can leach into the food.
Most ceramic brands in the United States no longer use cadmium or lead glazes. However, do beware of antique, handmade, and imported pottery that may be labeled for cooking.
When shopping for ceramic cookware, check the label or website to ensure it has been tested and does not contain metals or chemical coatings. Properly crafted or manufactured ceramics do not leach toxins into your food, their glazing will not chip off, and they are easy to clean.
Xtrema Ceramic Cookware
Cast Iron Skillets
Cast iron pans have been around for centuries. They are inexpensive, made without toxic chemicals and, when well-seasoned, is naturally non-stick.
Unlike non-sticks made with Teflon, cast iron pans safely withstand extremely high temperatures. While it can take longer for the cast iron to heat up, it holds the heat extremely well and easily moves from stovetop to oven.
Although cast iron holds heat well, it does not heat evenly. A pan on the stove top will get hottest where it is directly in contact with the flame, while staying much cooler in the areas that are not in direct contact.
Cast iron can also leach trace amounts of iron, especially when cooking tomatoes and other acidic foods. I’ve seen countless wellness blogs say this leaching is a good thing, because iron is a critical component nutrient in which we are commonly deficient. But while our body does readily break down and absorb iron from plants and animals, it does not readily assimilate iron in this metallic state.
Also, if you suffer from a condition called hemochromatosis, your body already absorbs too much iron. In that case, you definitely don’t want to cook with cast iron.
Cooking acidic foods in cast iron
Many cooking websites also say not to cook acidic foods in cast iron, as they can react with the iron and the foods can take on a metallic taste. They say that:
- The metallic taste is not harmful; it just isn’t pleasant.
- This is more of an issue with newer pans vs. well-seasoned cast iron.
- It’s only an issue for long cooking times. Sautéing tomatoes or squirting lemon on your veggies is not a big deal, but simmering a tomato sauce or chili gives more time for the acids to react with the iron.
Knowing that our bodies do not assimilate the iron from pots and pans, I’m wary to believe the metallic taste is not harmful. Whether you’re concerned with the taste or the leaching, it’s a good idea not to cook acidic foods in cast iron. Similarly, avoid using metal cooking utensils and harsh scrubbers with cast iron to prevent releasing the metallic particles.
Also, always keep your cast iron pans well-seasoned to prevent rusting and to maintain a (mostly) non-stick surface.
Carbon Steel Pans
For the most part, cooking with carbon steel is pretty much the same as cooking with cast iron, because they have a very similar makeup. Carbon steel is 98-99% iron and 1 to 2% carbon, while cast iron is 97-98% iron and 2 to 3% carbon. (Yep, carbon steel has a touch more iron than cast iron does.)
Like cast iron, carbon steel cookware is manufactured without toxic chemicals, is relatively inexpensive, and can last generations. You will need to season carbon steel, as you would cast iron, in order to protect it and make it (mostly) non-stick.
Both of these cookware options are safe under extremely high heats and can be used both on the stove top and in the oven. (Both are also great for campfires, by the way.) Finally, both need to be hand washed (no dishwashers) and both come with the same warning about cooking with high acid foods, such as tomatoes.
Carbon steel vs. cast iron
The main differences are:
- Carbon steel is not quite as heavy as cast iron (though I wouldn’t exactly call it “lightweight”).
- Carbon steel heats faster and doesn’t keep the heat as long as cast iron (but you’ll barely notice the difference).
- The sides of a cast iron skillet tend to be vertical (better for searing, frying, and baking), while carbon steel tends to be angled (better for sautés).
Ultimately, the differences between the two are not enough to merit owning a full set of each. Pick one or mix and match. Either way, they’re both healthy options, so long as you are careful to not scratch them or use them to cook acidic foods.
Stainless Steel Cookware
Stainless steel is a blend of metals (an alloy) usually containing iron, carbon, chromium, manganese, silicon, nickel, titanium, and/or molybdenum. The reaction of these elements with oxygen, particularly the chromium and nickel, forms a tight film that helps to prevent rust and corrosion.
The alloy makes stainless steel pots and pans durable, easy to clean, beautiful, and non-toxic… for almost everyone. Those with a severe allergy or sensitivity to nickel should know this…
Generally speaking, the natural coating formed by stainless steel is quite stable and safe. However, pots and pans can become damaged from overheating, scratching them with metal utensils, or abrasive scrubs. When the coating is compromised, it is possible to leach nickel into your food.
You’ll often see pots and pans described as “18/8 stainless steel” or “18/0 stainless steel”, for example. The numbers indicate the percentage of chromium and nickel, respectively. So 18/8 has 18% chromium and 8% nickel, while 18/0 is nickel-free (almost nickel-free, there may be some trace amount).
So if you are sensitive to nickel, you’ll want to choose nickel-free or opt for cast iron, carbon steel, or pure ceramic cookware instead.
Good to know: Nickel is what makes pots and pans shiny. The higher the nickel content, the shinier the cookware. Stainless steel utensils and bowls tend to have more of a matte finish, rather than shiny, because they contain no nickel… or just a trace amount of nickel (max 0.75%).
Stainless steel over a copper or aluminum core
On its own, stainless steel is not the best conductor of heat. For this reason, manufacturers will often use aluminum or copper as the base, or sandwiched in the middle, to significantly improve the pan’s ability to conduct and retain heat. Several layers of stainless steel are layered on top and (often) the bottom of the cookware. This is considered safe, because the aluminum or copper will improve the performance of the cookware without ever touching your food.
Glass cookware and bakeware is considered safe, as there are no toxins to leach into your food. The glass is often blended with a small amount of ceramic (also safe) to improve its performance. One pro is that glass is inexpensive, making it easy to replace if you break it. It’s also easy to monitor the food and see when it’s done, as it is (obviously) transparent.
Like ceramic, cast iron, and carbon steel, most glass cookware can be used on the stovetop and in the oven. Glass bakeware is often beautiful as well, so it can double as the serving dish. As an added bonus, you can use it to store leftovers in the fridge or freezer and reheat them in the microwave, on the stovetop, or in the oven – all in the same glass piece.
Glass is also completely non-reactive with foods. So unlike carbon steel or cast iron, you can cook tomato sauce or whatever acidic foods you want without worrying about the taste.
The downsides of glass cookware
One big downside to glass cookware is that it can chip or break easily, so you have to be careful. If you put a hot glass baking dish on a wet countertop or cold stove top, it can crack. Put it in the fridge or freezer before it has cooled sufficiently, it can crack. Put it straight from the fridge into the microwave without bringing it to room temperature first, it can crack. It doesn’t take much.
Like ceramic cookware, glass cookware is not non-stick. I use both glass and ceramic baking pans to roast veggies. Whichever I use, I always lay a piece of parchment paper on the bottom and toss the veggies in a bit of olive or coconut oil. If I don’t, everything sticks to the bottom and it takes work to clean.
It does help to soak the pan in water after the pan has fully cooled. If soaking in water isn’t enough (and this goes for both glass and ceramic), I’ll either spray a little white vinegar on the pan and/or scrub it with some baking soda.
Titanium is a “bio-compatible” metal, meaning it doesn’t react with human tissue. For this reason, it is widely used in surgical instruments and for orthopedic procedures.
Pure titanium cookware is lightweight, incredibly strong, and affordable. It is also not known to leach into foods. Here’s why.
Titanium naturally reacts with oxygen in the air and water. In doing so, it naturally forms a strong shield of completely safe titanium dioxide (TiO2) on the surface. So if you do manage to scratch the cookware (with metal utensils, for example), the exposed titanium will simply react with oxygen to re-form TiO2, essentially resealing itself. Pretty cool, right?
So while titanium is not entirely scratch resistant, the scratches won’t degrade the performance of the cookware and won’t cause metal particles to leach into your food.
With so many upsides, titanium sounds like the best cookware solution overall. And if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, it certainly is. Hikers and campers love it because it’s so lightweight that it’s easy to carry in a backpack and so durable that you can throw it on the campfire without worry.
Unfortunately, pure titanium is not a great conductor of heat, so it takes a while for it to heat up and creates hot spots where the pan meets the flame, often burning food in those areas. So despite the naturally non-toxic nature of pure titanium, you probably wouldn’t use it for everyday cooking. It is, however, highly recommended to have on hand for outdoor excursions.
Making up for titanium’s shortfall
Manufacturers do love titanium and easily solve for its downsides in order to use it in their not-purely-titanium cookware. Here are two ways they do it. Both are considered safe options.
The manufacturers layer the titanium over an aluminum core. This drastically improves the cookware’s ability to distribute and retain heat. This is considered safe, as it would be pretty difficult (if not impossible) to scratch through the titanium and expose the aluminum.
They will also coat the cookware in a ceramic-titanium blend. While titanium is pretty food-sticky on its own, the ceramic-titanium coating makes it non-stick. I’ve seen reviews that indicate this type of coating doesn’t last forever. The exception seems to be when the coating applied using a “sol gel” process, which is reported as more durable, long lasting, and non-toxic.
Avoid these unhealthy cookware options:
- Teflon and non-stick coatings
Choose these wisely:
- Eco non-stick cookware
- Silicone bakeware
Opt for these safer, non-toxic cookware alternatives:
- Pure ceramic pots and pans are my absolute first choice for healthy cookware
- Cast iron skillets, so long as you take care not to scratch it or use it to cook acidic foods
- Carbon steel pans, using the same precautions as cast iron
- Stainless steel cookware, though be careful not to burn or scratch it. (I’m currently replacing my stainless steel with ceramic, one piece at a time.)
- Glass cookware is great for roasting veggies, so long as the pan is thick and durable
- Titanium cookware is convenient for camping, but it’s not a great choice for the kitchen
- https://www.drkarafitzgerald.com/2017/07/10/safest-cookware- choices-for-your-family/
- http://www.isca.in/rjrs/archive/special_issue2012/12.ISCA-ISC-2012- 4CS-93.pdf
- http://www.productknowledge.com/intro-nonstick-coatings-kinds-of- coatings.html