Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Based on Science

Inexpensive and easy to use, nonstick cookware floods our markets, restaurants, and homes. More than half of the top 50 best selling skillets on Amazon are nonstick. One may not spend a lot of money buying a nonstick pan, but are we paying for it in other ways? 

Although usually safe to use if you don’t overheat the pan or damage the nonstick coating, nonstick pans contain substances that were linked to increased risk for human health and the environment.

Manufacturing nonstick coatings pollutes the environment

Nonstick cookware is considered a health risk

Nonstick is more expensive in the long term

PFAs – health and environmental issues

The most popular non-stick coating is Teflon®, called scientifically polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Although considered generally harmless [1], other chemicals, used for manufacturing non-stick coatings, are not. The best-known is perfluorooctanoic acid, also called PFOA, which is found in trace amounts in non-stick cookware (even though it should have vanished during manufacturing). PFOA belongs to the PFA (per and polyfluoroalkyl) class of substances, also called “forever chemicals”, more specifically to the long-chain PFAs. They repel water, oil and grease, and are chemically stable {Giesy, 2002, Peer Reviewed: Perfluorochemical Surfactants in the Environment}.

PFOA is so mobile that it is not only found near manufacturing plants or dumping sites, where it contaminates the groundwater [2]. In low concentrations, it spreads virtually everywhere {Hu, 2016, Detection of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in U.S. Drinking Water Linked to Industrial Sites`, Military Fire Training Areas`, and Wastewater Treatment Plants}, being found in animals as far as the Arctic, although in lower concentration than in urban or industrial areas {Giesy, 2002, Peer Reviewed: Perfluorochemical Surfactants in the Environment}. It is found in the human blood at low levels, where it may accumulate [3] and may remain in the body for years after exposure ends. In relatively large concentrations was shown to cause tumors in lab animals [4] and human cell cultures [5]. Its presence was associated with incidences of some cancers in humans [5] [2], increased cholesterol in children and teenagers [6], weight gain [7], low birth weight in children [8] altered mammary gland development in mice [3], disruption of the immune system [3] [4] which may lead to reduced effectiveness of vaccines [9], hormonal imbalances [2] and harmful effects on the liver [4] and thyroid [4] [10]. Contamination with PFOA lead to thousands of lawsuits against its producer, DuPont. Its usage was discontinued in the Western world, thanks to the Madrid Statement, but it may be produced elsewhere. Apparently, the effect of banning was the reduction in the number of children with low birth weight [8].

PFOA was replaced with shorter-chain PFAs and other substances, like GenX (HFPO-DA) {Brandsma, 2019, The PFOA substitute GenX detected in the environment near a fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in the Netherlands}, with unknown risks and unproven record. They also leak into the environment, contaminating plants {Brandsma, 2019, The PFOA substitute GenX detected in the environment near a fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in the Netherlands} and water {Hogue, 2018, What’s GenX still doing in the water downstream of a Chemours plant?}, are even more persistent and mobile than long-chain PFAs [12] and maybe just as hazardous [3] [13, 14]. Unlike for medicines or food additives, chemicals used in products that are not food or medicines get insufficient testing [13].

Contamination of the environment with PFOA and GenX, close to a fluoropolymer factory in the Netherlands. Image source: Brandsma et al (2019). Creative Commons license.

Teflon safety

Even Dr. Robert Wolke, who endorsed DuPont’s Teflon® in 2013’s as “completely safe” (so he should not be considered unbiased), later told Good Housekeeping about nonstick pans: “safe, as long as they’re not overheated”. Overheating means reaching a temperature over 260°C or 500F; according to the same article, the temperature is easily reached in a normal setting. They also quote Kurunthachalam Kannan, saying that that “if pans do chip or flake, they may be more likely to release toxic compounds”. If so, he recommends throwing them out.

Health benefits

Manufacturers of non-stick cookware consider that their products promote health because they need very little to no fat for frying.

Metals – environmental costs

Mining has the heaviest environmental costs of any industry, with light metals such as titanium and aluminum using the most energy, and releasing the most greenhouse gases, of the common metals whose environmental effects were studied. Even though recycling aluminum saves energy (compared to mining), it still requires more energy than producing the same quantity of steel from ore. Nonstick cookware, though lighter, still requires more energy than steel or cast iron for production, unless the aluminum is 100% from recycling.

Because of the short lifetime of nonstick or ceramic cookware (advertised 3-5 years, if used about 3 times a week), we need to look beyond the product lifecycle and think about what we actually use. Given that sturdy stainless steel or cast iron pan would last well over 35 years, we would have to buy 7-10 nonstick pans for the same time period. And if we plan to use the pans more than three times a week, we would have to change them more often. For two-three meals a day, a more realistic lifetime for the pans would be 6-12 months, and we’d need 35-70 pans in the 35 years considered. This alone would lead to increased environmental costs, not mentioning personal costs (financial, or health risks if we stick to damaged pans).

Environmental Benefits

For objectivity, we need to keep in mind certain environmental benefits from non-stick cookware. One of them was mentioned earlier – they need less fat and the production and disposal of cooking fat come with its own environmental costs. Nonstick cookware needs less maintenance, therefore a reduced need for water and detergents, which pollute an already dwindling water supply. Nonstick pots and pans could be considered if the water is extremely scarce in your area, but they come with pollution costs elsewhere, and their total costs are higher – especially that we consider the totality of pots and pans we will use, not only an individual product. Another benefit is that aluminum (usually used for nonstick cookware) is more energy-efficient than cast iron or stainless steel. However, there are more durable energy-efficient models, like stainless steel cookware with copper or aluminum cores.

End of life

Even assuming that nonstick coating is safe for cooking, we must keep in mind that many consumer products end up as trash, and they will probably remain as such for thousands of years. Nonstick or ceramic pans are hard to recycle, and so they end up in the environment, where the multitude of complex chemicals interact with sunlight, rainwater, fire and other elements, microorganisms and a multitude of other chemicals, in ways we cannot predict. Even trash that was headed for recycling may end up in landfills. Trash can also be sold to other countries or incinerated either industrially, or by ragpickers, in order to recover metal. Fire is probably the worst pathway for disposing of trash – it was shown that burning the non-stick coatings turns them into some other hazardous substances [1], like trifluoroacetate (TFA) [15], which is toxic to plants and extremely persistent [15] [16], PFOA (as a combustion product this time) [15], other persistent carboxylic acids and CFCs, which destroy the ozone layer and exacerbate global warming [15]. Even what is recycled gets the nonstick coating removed; sandblasting and overcoating does not remove the contaminants. Another solution that sends the problem somewhere else is donating to charity or to a thrift store. But that would mean simply exposing someone else to the chemicals, and that person may dispose of the cookware in improper ways as well.

Labeling and instructions problems

Even though it was proven beyond doubt that nonstick coatings are unhealthy if overheated or damaged, there is very little to no labeling regarding potential hazards (from misuse or combustion) on most products that we have examined. The cheapest nonstick pans or pots provided no useful information, although some pans had instructions, even a small manual. Some labels even mentioned the flu-like symptoms, and the danger to pet birds, from inhaling the fumes from overheating a nonstick pan [1]. A visit to thrift stores showed a multitude of used non-stick items, all of which were heavily scratched, chipped or burned. This was the best evidence that the previous owners didn’t follow any guidelines, if any were listed, thus putting themselves and everyone else at risk. Unlike for food, there is no list of ingredients listed for the non-stick coating, even though it comes in contact with food. First of all, there is no requirement for such substances to be labeled. Secondly, some substances and processes are trade secrets. And thirdly, the names of such substances (even though some may be totally harmless) may deter buyers from purchasing the products.

More environmentally friendly options

Since non-stick is dangerous for the environment, we explored the alternatives. ‘Ceramic’ cookware may be made of aluminum or other light metals. The ‘ceramic’ coatings may be just as dubious as the non-stick, use more fuel, and they diminish their non-stick qualities over time. Cookware made of steel or cast iron may develop a near-nonstick coating through a process called seasoning. Metals such as aluminum and titanium have very high mining costs [17], even taking recycling into account [18]. Recycling aluminum may demand more energy and may release more greenhouse gases (data from [18], [19]) than producing steel from ore [17]. Therefore, the best options for the environment would be cast iron or stainless steel. For fuel efficiency, Sarah Kolarik (Stanford Magazine) recommends buying stainless steel cookware with copper or aluminum cores, because stainless steel has the lowest conductivity among cookware metals, aluminum higher, copper the highest. Cookware made of mixed metals may not be recyclable, but if used frequently and for a long time, it reduces the environmental cost of fuel. Stainless steel (with or without a conductive core) is resistant to rust, so there are no problems when leaving it unused for long. Another alternative, cast iron, can last for generations and gets better with age if cared properly. However, it cannot be used for boiling water (since it is prone to rust) or for acidic foods, such as tomato sauce. For these, the best option is still stainless steel.

Scientific references

1. Waritz, R.S., An industrial approach to evaluation of pyrolysis and combustion hazards. Environmental health perspectives, 1975. 11: p. 197-202.

2. Chan, B., Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). 2019, HN Health Alert Network.

3. Pelch, K.E., et al., PFAS health effects database: Protocol for a systematic evidence map. Environment International, 2019. 130: p. 104851.

4. Bruton, T.A. and A. Blum, Proposal for coordinated health research in PFAS-contaminated communities in the United States. Environmental Health, 2017. 16(1): p. 120.

5. ACS. Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). 2016 05-01-2016 27-02-2020]; Available from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/teflon-and-perfluorooctanoic-acid-pfoa.html.

6. Frisbee, S.J., et al., Perfluorooctanoic Acid, Perfluorooctanesulfonate, and Serum Lipids in Children and Adolescents: Results From the C8 Health Project. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 2010. 164(9): p. 860-869.

7. Liu, G., et al., Perfluoroalkyl substances and changes in body weight and resting metabolic rate in response to weight-loss diets: A prospective study. PLOS Medicine, 2018. 15(2): p. e1002502.

8. Malits, J., et al., Perfluorooctanoic acid and low birth weight: Estimates of US attributable burden and economic costs from 2003 through 2014. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 2018. 221(2): p. 269-275.

9. NTP, Monograph on Immunotoxicity Associated with Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), N.T. Program, Editor. 2016: Research Triangle Park, NC.

10. NLM. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA). ToxTown 23-02-2020]; Available from: https://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/chemicals-and-contaminants/perfluorooctanoic-acid-pfoa.

11. Brandsma, S.H., et al., The PFOA substitute GenX detected in the environment near a fluoropolymer manufacturing plant in the Netherlands. Chemosphere, 2019. 220: p. 493-500.

12. Li, F., et al., Short-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in aquatic systems: Occurrence, impacts and treatment. Chemical Engineering Journal, 2020. 380: p. 122506.

13. Scheringer, M., et al., Helsingør Statement on poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs). Chemosphere, 2014. 114: p. 337-339.

14. Rae, J.M.C., et al., Evaluation of chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity of ammonium 2,3,3,3-tetrafluoro-2-(heptafluoropropoxy)-propanoate in Sprague–Dawley rats. Toxicology Reports, 2015. 2: p. 939-949.

15. Ellis, D.A., et al., Thermolysis of fluoropolymers as a potential source of halogenated organic acids in the environment. Nature, 2001. 412(6844): p. 321-4.

16. Gorman, J., Environment’s stuck with nonstick coatings. Science News, 2001. 160(3): p. 36-36.

17. Norgate, T.E., S. Jahanshahi, and W.J. Rankin, Assessing the environmental impact of metal production processes. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2007. 15(8): p. 838-848.

18. Damgaard, A., A.W. Larsen, and T.H. Christensen, Recycling of metals: accounting of greenhouse gases and global warming contributions. Waste Management & Research, 2009. 27(8): p. 773-780.

19. DECCW, Environmental benefits of recycling, C.C.a.W.N. Department of Environment, Editor. 2010: NSW, Australia.

Nonstick is expensive in the long-term

Have you been keeping track of what you spend on nonstick cookware? 

Let’s focus on nonstick pans for a minute. Let’s be honest about how long the nonstick coating lasts.

Customers often comment that the pans work well for the first few weeks or months. Soon though, food begins to stick to the pan and becomes difficult to clean off. The coating has begun to deteriorate and lose its effectiveness.

Manufacturers are continually trying to produce durable nonstick coatings. The lab tests on coatings are rigorous

Real-life circumstances are recreated to test the strength and resilience of the coatings. This leads some manufacturers to claim that the nonstick coatings last 3 to 5 years.

Customers who use them beg to differ. Most one-star reviews are from customers who are dissatisfied with the coatings. They find that most nonstick coatings only last between 3 and 10 months with regular use

Based on this customer feedback, let’s say the average nonstick coating lasts roughly 6 months. With regular use, exposure to high heat, and exposure to detergents, the nonstick coating wears off.

Is there a more economical alternative? 

Choose stainless steel instead of a nonstick pan

A simple cost comparison shows that purchasing a quality stainless steel pan would be more economical in the long run.

One of the most popular non-stick pans is T-fal’s Fry Pan.

At the time of analysis, it’s price was $28. 

If the nonstick coating lasts roughly 6 months on average, you will need to buy a new pan twice a year. That will cost you $56 a year. (2 x $28). 

Over 5 years you would buy 10 pans, and that would cost you about $560.

The All-Clad D3 10-Inch Pan usually retails at $100. It is a stainless steel pan and has a lifespan of at least 10 years. 

Within 2 years the stainless steel pan would have covered the cost of nonstick pans. The initial outlay will pay off with many years of use. 

Stainless steel pans have many advantages over nonstick pans:

  • Stainless steel pans look beautiful.
  • The hot pan browns food far better than nonstick pans.
  • Stainless steel is stronger than aluminum which generally used to make nonstick pans. It is more resilient to damage and unharmed by metal utensils.
  • It can be washed in a dishwasher and is not damaged by burnt food.
  • Stainless steel also offers a healthier, non-toxic cooking experience.

An even more economical alternative to nonstick cookware is cast iron.

  • It is cheaper than stainless steel and very durable.
  • Cast iron cookware needs to be seasoned, but this creates a natural nonstick effect.
  • It is heavier than nonstick cookware.
  • Cast iron must be kept dry and oiled to prevent oxidization.
  • It requires a bit more care than a nonstick pan but you will only ever need to buy one.

There are more economical options to choose from. Consider how much you are spending on regular replacement of your nonstick pans and buy a longer-lasting alternative. You will be saving in the long run.

Use a nonstick pan only for fish and eggs

If you use a nonstick pan, try to only use it for cooking fish and eggs. The nonstick coating ensures that these delicate foods don’t break up while cooking and turning. All other foods can be cooked in pans without a nonstick coating.

Remember to use the pan on medium temperatures only and do not allow it to heat beyond 500F. Protect the nonstick layer by avoiding utensils that scratch the coating. Rather wash the pan by hand with warm water and a very mild detergent than in a dishwasher.

Taking good care of your nonstick coating will make it last longer and protect you from any unhealthy fumes and toxins.

If I don’t use a nonstick pan how do I stop my food from sticking to the pan?

Stainless steel is one possible alternative to a nonstick pan. To stop your food from sticking, warm up the pan and then add the oil.

When the oil is hot add your ingredients. You can test if the oil is hot enough by flicking a drop of water into the pan. If it vaporizes immediately it is ready to use.

The ingredients should be dry and at room temperature. Wet, cold food will stick to your pan. Do not move the food until it is cooked, as it will naturally release from the hot pan. Try not to overfill the pan and give the food enough space to cook.

Stainless steel, cast iron, and blue steel can all be seasoned. This creates a natural nonstick layer that can be replaced if necessary. To season the pan, heat it in an oven at 400F. While it is hot, coat the inside and outside of the pan with flax or grapeseed oil using a cloth or paper towel. Leave the pan upside down in your oven for an hour after this on a baking sheet. Allow it to cool completely when you take it out of the oven.

You will not need to add any oil or butter when cooking in your seasoned pan unless you choose to. Heat it on medium heat and when it is warm, add your ingredients.

Using an alternative pan may take a little experimentation and require a little more effort to clean than regular nonstick pans. Considering that they are so much better for the environment and human health, those small inconveniences will pay off handsomely in the long run.

 

 

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