I couldn’t find any MDA posts that tackled the matter of cookware possibly leaching heavy metals and/or toxic chemicals into food. I’ve read that a porcelain/ceramic inside surface is the way to go, (thereby avoiding Teflon and metals), but good-quality examples like Le Creuset are darn expensive, and lesser-quality ones like Heuck look like camping gear to me. Have you researched or concluded anything on this matter? Is this a non-issue?
Thanks to Mike for this week’s question. Essentially, you want three things when it comes to cookware. You want it to conduct heat efficiently and evenly. You don’t want to pry your food off the pan with a crow bar. Finally, you want to be reasonably certain that you’re not ingesting parts of said cookware along with each meal.
The “best” cookware probably isn’t a simple or single answer. What works great for slow cooking a homemade tomato sauce  isn’t necessarily the ideal choice for an omelet . Likewise, there’s the question of price. It’s likely worth paying more for certain pieces of cookware but O.K. to go cheaper on others. Here’s a rundown of the main cookware options as I’ve observed them.
If you’ve read the paper or watched the news in the last decade, you probably know these have been the source of much controversy. The pros, of course, are the ease of cooking and clean-up. Nothing sticks to the best of these, and that’s why they’re so popular in homes and restaurants. Nonetheless, there are major negatives. Whether it’s the original Teflon brand or another version of non-stick finish, that magic coating can come with a price. The issue? A nasty chemical known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) that has been linked to tumors, blood lipid changes, liver damage, hormone imbalance, reproductive issues, and other health issues. (I’ll throw in an interesting link from the Environmental Working Group that compares their analysis of research compared to industry statements .) The PFOA chemical is so pervasive that it’s been found in the blood of 98% of the American population  (PDF) and in 100% of umbilical cord blood samples from a 2007 Johns Hopkins University study .
But back to the cookware itself. The non-stick cookware today generally holds up better than it did when it was first introduced a few decades ago. One of the biggest risks is flaking. (Those black specks in that Sunday morning omelet might not be pepper.) If the pan is scratched or chipped, it’s time to let it go – no matter how much of a miser you pride yourself in being.) The other risk involves fumes. When non-stick pans are heated to high temperatures, they can emit harmful polymer fumes. There’s question about what this threshold temperature is exactly, but the industry guideline dictates 500 degrees – not a hard temperature to reach (or exceed) when you’re doing high temp cooking like stir-frying.
The bottom line on non-stick… I’d recommend avoiding them. In my experience they’re unnecessary. The big marketing message behind non-stick cookware boasts “lower fat” cooking because of the reduced need for oils/fats for coating the pan. Obviously, this isn’t a concern for us Primal types. However, if you’re too tempted by the convenience factor of non-stick, reserve it for only the most delicate dishes. At the very first sign of wear, pitch them. As far as the fumes go, don’t heat the pan empty, and avoid using this kind of cookware for high temps.
The pros? It conducts heat well, and it’s probably the cheapest option in the cookware aisle. Alas, there are concerns behind the savings. Aluminum will leach under many conditions, particularly when the cookware is heated (the point, isn’t it?) and when the cookware comes in contact with common acidic foods .
Leaching is problematic because of the potential connection of aluminum to Alzheimer’s as suggested by some older research. Although the relationship is open to question, the fact is that we have no need for aluminum in our diet. Best bet – best avoided.
Both anodized and enameled aluminum cookware have become popular recently. Anodized coatings are essentially oxide films that are harder and stronger than the typical Teflon coatings. They don’t react with food acids and offer a smooth surface that makes for easy cooking and clean up. Nonetheless, they’re not impenetrable. The coating can be damaged and allow leaching to occur. Enameled aluminum cookware offers the same advantages but also carries the same leaching risks.
I have a number of recipes that call for clay pot cooking, and there is something gratifyingly “primal” about using this kind of cookware. (Not quite as old-fashioned as the spit or spear, but still traditional.) There are plenty of good ceramic options out there, but you have to exercise caution. Although most American made ceramic cookware (from larger companies but not necessarily individual/small shop craftspeople) should be safe, foreign made ceramic pieces carry a risk of lead poisoning. Ceramic glazes contain lead, and even those that are well sealed can wear over time. If you choose to include ceramic pieces in your cookware set, buy American and use them selectively or be prepared to replace the pots regularly. Avoid the dishwasher entirely, and limit using them with acidic foods that can increase leaching if there are imperfections in the glaze.
Stainless is probably the most common material for cookware in this country and for good reason. It’s relatively inexpensive, lightweight and stable. Good quality stainless steel cookware usually offers a copper or aluminum bottom for better heat conductivity, which translates to more even cooking. I’d say that stainless steel is a good bet – especially for the price. Nonetheless, it does have some leaching potential. (The leaching in stainless steel is generally thought to be less of a risk than aluminum or copper cookware.) In this case, the metal that leaches out is nickel, an allergy risk for some people and unnecessary element for the rest of us. Though it’s generally considered safe for cooking acidic foods, I wouldn’t suggest storing anything acidic in a stainless steel pot or bowl. And if you’re looking to err on the very safe side, look at other cookware options for slow cooking of acidic dishes.
Although copper pots are considered the best of the best for cooking because of their superior heat conductivity, copper will leach if it comes into contact with food, particularly acidic foods like wine, tomatoes and citrus juices. Look for copper pots that are lined with stainless steel, but (again) don’t store acidic foods in the cookware.
It’s the workhorse of many a kitchen and admittedly a favorite of mine. Anyone have their parents’ or grandparents’ old skillet? Like fine wine. Cast iron is heavy, no doubt, and requires a little extra care. But a well seasoned cast iron piece is a safe and remarkably non-stick cookware option. (The non-stick action gets better over time.) And as far as leaching goes? Cast iron can serve as a good source of – you guessed it – iron. Factors that influence iron content of food cooked in cast iron cookware include acidity level, duration of cook time and age of the cookware itself (the older the piece, the less iron is leached).
Enameled cast iron, such as Le Creuset, offers the versatility of cast iron (cook top to oven, etc.) with easier clean up. Yes, Le Creuset’s sticker shock makes you understand why it’s considered heirloom material, but a carefully selected piece or two can be a worthy investment. Other, less expensive brands are out there. While Christmas shopping this year I noticed Martha Stewart had put out her own collection. Apples – do you have other sources to suggest?
I’d love to hear your comments and recommendations on the cookware you use or choose to avoid. As always, thanks for reading, and keep the questions coming!
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