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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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April 13 2009

Dear Mark: Considering Cookware

By Mark Sisson
71 Comments

Hi Mark,

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.

Teflon/Non-Stick

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.

Aluminum

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.

Ceramic

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 Steel

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.

Copper

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.

Cast Iron

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!

bcostin, myhsu, Roadsidepictures, cybrgrl, Generation X-Ray, vi huang, studiosmith Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Safe Cooking Temperatures

Are Microwaves Safe?

When it Comes to Fat, How Hot is Too Hot?

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71 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Considering Cookware”

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  1. I can vouch for the martha Stewart stuff. Plus, it’s always on clearance whenever I’m at Macy’s. That and my trusty army of cast iron pans serve me well.

  2. I’m glad to see this discussion come up.

    I have been well aware of the dangers of ‘Teflon’ type products, but broke down and bought one that is reserved for cooking my crepes ONLY.

    My father has been pushing cast-iron and stainless steel as viable alternatives for superiour health benefits, however, your article has notified me of my intolerance (allergy) to nickle, which may be a source of my nasty excema outbreaks….hmmm…

    Thanks again!

    1. I cook my crepes in cast iron. Grease well, low heat, watch carefully, turn with a fork. Might not work if yours have more ingredients than “egg”.

  3. Timely post, as I am currently replacing all my cookware. I am finding some great deals buying cast iron directly from Lodge. They seem to put random items on sale for great prices and shipping is not as expensive as you would expect. The cast iron comes “pre-seasoned”.

    Gah! I sound like a salesperson….I do not work for them, just wanted to pass on the savings.

  4. Great post!

    I posted last week about how to find discount Le Creuset:

    http://www.cheeseslave.com/2009/04/07/save-money-on-healthy-cookware-how-to-find-discount-le-creuset/

    I saved over $200 on a Le Creuset Dutch oven.

    Granite Ware is a much cheaper alternative to Le Creuset.

    I also think glass is safe — however… beware of the exploding modern Pyrex. Best bet is to buy vintage Pyrex glass bakeware.

    The old Pyrex was made from borosilicate glass but the company switched to soda-lime glass, which has the tendency to explode.

    http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2006/03/pyrex_panic.html

  5. Wonderful post!

    i have always sworn by cast iron. I inherited a precious few pieces and got the rest at yard sales, estate sales, and flea markets.

    Thrifty Paleos, here’s a tip: Head out of town to yard sales, or suss out small livestock auctions. many country folks have so much inherited cast iron that they will sell peices for cheap. Small livestock or equipment auctions often have “junk” for sale as well. I found my huge dutch oven- with lid – seasoned by many generations of use sitting in the shadow of a scrape blade for a tractor!

  6. good to know about the nickel in the stainless steel… thanks mark! it’s amazing where this stuff “hides” (like in white gold jewelry…). guess i’ll be keepin an eye out for cast iron and getting my weight lifting in while i cook 😉

  7. My buddy Brad Pilon turned me onto the Green Pan. It is in the “nonstick” category, but I find it isn’t quite as nonstick as some of the teflon based brands. The Green Pan uses a process they call Thermonlon and they claim that there is no potential for PFOA release. They also make a bunch of claims about more environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques.

    I’m very happy with the set I bought. The larger pan warped a bit, so is no longer truly flat. But that is the only complaint I have so far. I’ve had them for about a year so far.

    Of course, when cooking anything that goes from stove top to oven, it’s always my trusty cast iron spider that I turn to (inherited from my Mom).

    Cheers,
    Adam

  8. If you properly season and care for your cast iron hardware, it will become the only pan you ever want or need. I own 2x Lodge 12″ cast iron skillets, and I use them for everything. Additionally, Lodge now makes enameled cast iron dutch ovens. I own a le creuset and a lodge, and aside from the extra digit in the price tag, I can’t tell a difference.

  9. I like the anodized aluminium pans — they are the ‘green’ type Adam Steer suggests — with the light gray surface. Basically they take an aluminium pan and give it a thick surface layer of aluminium oxide. The oxide is hard, very refractory (doesn’t soften at high temperatures), and easy to clean while the aluminium base is conductive of heat.

  10. yeah my mom pretty much only uses her iron pan and her ceramic pot.
    what about glass wears? are they safe?….I mean…I do use microwave a lot.

  11. We had two good sets of non-stick when we got married. Got rid of the one at a garage sale. It went quick. So take that money and buy other. We got All-Clad, the classic stainless steel and I believe the core is aluminum for even heat distribution. I absolutely love it. Thought I might have to buy one non stick version for eggs, but I have no problem once I read some tips. Eggs of any type don’t stick, I just use butter and a medium heat. It’s expensive but with the economy down, we were able to get it 25% off which was unheard of. Plus we cook in instead of going out. I also have a Lodge and Emeril-ware cast iron skillets. I use them on the grill to sear steaks and tuna. Also take them car camping or canoeing. Last canoe trip (a bachelor party none the less), I would cook steaks at night and in the morning sausages and fry eggs in the sausage fat in the morning. Incredible. The nice part is all can be transferred directly to the oven as my wife did last night with both for racks of lamb after searing.

  12. Mark — You seem to be following the topic quite closely, so you know that there is a lot of misinformation out there about he safety of Teflon. In the interest of making sure that people have all the information they need to make good decisions about cookware, I feel compelled to share this article from Consumer Reports that highlights what leading regulatory agencies and consumer groups say about Teflon. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/kitchen/cookware-bakeware-cutlery/nonstick-pans-6-07/overview/0607_pans_ov_1.htm I’m a representative from DuPont, and hope that you’ll share this with your readers. I’d be glad to pass along any other information if it would be helpful for people. I appreciate you taking a look. Ross

    1. If my friend had forgotten a cast iron skillet on the stove his parrot would not have died. The hell with Teflon I say. (yes, I read the article)

  13. A few years ago I purchased an expensive titanium skillet as I was worried about the teflon issue. While this pan is good, it’s “natural non-stick” surface seems to have eroded over time (full disclosure: we were lazy about seasoning it). I just bought another cast iron pan for $22…and it’s perfect. Makes me wonder why I ever stopped using it!

  14. I see Le Creuset at TJ Maxx and Marshalls. I’m guessing its discounted since its Maxx/Marshalls.

  15. Yes, I have quite a few Griswold cast iron pans and they rock! I also love my le creuset for tomato sauce, chili, soups. And, I do still scramble eggs in a non-stick and I know I should give it up!

  16. Tuesday Morning sometimes has Le Creuset stuff, my mom got me a lovely dutch oven there a couple years ago. Cookware is abundant, there’s no reason to pay full price for it.

  17. Jeff has it.

    I got a reeeaaally discounted enamel coasted iron dutch oven at Marshalls last year. They always have pans there. Its worth a couple visits.

  18. Gastrolux is a fantastic replacement for teflon. Non toxic. Google it 🙂

  19. FANTASTIC post, Mark.

    something Id quite frankly not thought enough about and something which is NOT covered anywhere else.

    click and PRINT 🙂

  20. Earth chef has a line of ceramic coated pans that are non stick, very durable, and easy to clean. You can even use metal spatulas though I usually use wood just in case. Worth checking out though.

  21. I had some good luck with the mario batali brand of enameled cast iron, nice colors, durable and best of all much cheaper than the high end brands.
    Love using it to slow cook meat and braise vegetables

  22. Wow, I hadn’t thought about what you cook in too much before but you’ve definitely done some research here! This makes a good case why microwaving and baking are good ideas sometimes 🙂

  23. Nothing beats cast iron, maybe it’s just me, but it seems to imbue food with a certain different flavour (better), that no other type of cookware can match. I gotta always have at least some cast iron in my kitchen :).

  24. I always love the way stainless steel cooks. My only thing about it is i always had a hard time to clean it up, it seems to really stick, harder work to clean but worth it.

    About cast iron, hard to beat. My grandparents loved to cook with it. My parents do, too.

  25. I was at a home show recently where several vendors were selling titanium cookware. Very impressive no stick with lifetime warranty. I am thinking of buying an 11″ x1.5 ” deep skillet with glass cover to sear steaks and fish. I understand it works well to cook any vegetable as well. It’s non stick with no coating. Is this one piece kitchen set too good to be true? I am starting with nothing and am a minimalist.

  26. Two things:

    1) traditionally, a lot of quality copperware is lined with non-reactive Tin. I can’t find any evidence that Tin is bad for you. But maybe MDA knows different?

    2) Le Creuset is the best, and once you figure out what it can do, you may never want to use anything else again. Le Creuset can do what a crock pot can do, only WAY BETTER. Salt and sear that Boston Butt at 7:00 am, then put it in a 200 degree oven in your Le Creuset until 5:00 pm. God’s own pulled pork and you did nothing. Also works with: every other relatively cheap cut of meat on the planet.

  27. I’m really big on grilling outside on the back patio. Whenever i can’t because of rain, i’ll always bake in a large glass pan in the oven. I find that glassware works so well and easy clean up.

  28. I wish I could use cast iron, but I have one of those ‘ceramic top stoves’.
    Teflon has always been out for me as I have Tropical Birds, and the vet said no, no, no.

  29. I bought a Neova cookware set from Vita Mix in the early 90’s. It is 5 ply stainless steel, and it has worked great for these many years. I think it is safe based on using it for all this time with no problems (I’m almost 73).

  30. Another vote for cast iron over here.

    When I was little we had aluminium pans and over time they pitted, ISTR one pitted right through and started leaking.

    When I was older we had various non-stick pans where you ended up over time with an ordinary pan and non-stick food. It’s quite a concept, making the non-stick stick to the pan . . .

    The absolute worst ones I had were made in a nice curved shape, which caused things to boil over easily, and had unbreakable glass lids so you could see what was occurring. Unfortunately the plastic handle on the unbreakable lids was very breakable, and also unscrewed itself if you farted in its general direction. Then there were the ones with handles that got hotter than the rest of the pan (sigh) there is some real crap on the market and not necessarily cheap either.

    Now I have some decent non-stick pans for mother as the cast iron is too heavy for her to lift, but I prefer the iron ones myself.

  31. I am having difficulty finding any “health” information about Chantal copper fusion cookware…how does that compare to the stainless steel?

  32. Hi Mark
    What do you think of
    (i) carbon steel woks?
    (ii) Calphalon’s infused-anodised fry pans?
    Tks!
    JK

  33. I enjoyed your post. I have long been an advocate of pitching nonstick cookware and going with other tools such as cast iron. I love cast iron but it is downright painfully heavy. I’ve been reading about new enamel coated cookware by starfrit. it claims to be the more economical choice for “green cookware.” Have you heard of it and what do you think? Is there any such thing as light weight cast iron or something similar?

  34. I have tossed my third teflon 12″ skillet in as many years, due to the teflon flaking. I am going to buy the Le Creuset. The fact it doesn’t need to be replace, if cared for properly, outweighs the replacement every year of the others.

  35. I would like to emphasize what was posted regarding non-stick cookware and birds. This is extremely important! If you have birds, you can kill them by overheating teflon pans, which is easy to do. PLEASE DO NOT USE NON-STICK PANS IF YOU HAVE BIRDS!!!

  36. Hey Mark,
    I want to by a crock pot and am trying to decide between Stainless steel or ceramic. I read what you had to say about both above. Which would you recommend for a crock pot and why…any brands that are safest?

    Thanka!
    Beth

  37. I found this on the about.com: thyroid disease site: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is focusing attention on a new study that has found that PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon, food wrappers and other products, may be dangerous to health. The study, which looked at 69,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio who live near a DuPont manufacturing plant where the chemical is used, found that the chemical may harm the immune system, liver and thyroid and cause raise cholesterol levels in children.
    In addition to various health concerns, the study found that “thyroid function was clearly affected in PFOA-exposed people, with the effect strongest at moderate levels of exposure, rather than the highest exposures.”

  38. I’m a big fan of glass when I can find it.

    Dr. Mercola also carries a good brand of cookware by himself that he claims as the only non-leaching cookware out there. I don’t have it but would love to own that.

  39. I purchased an All-Clad stainless steel fry pan last year and it’s the best pan I have ever had. It cleans up easily like Teflon but w/o the worry of toxins. All-Clad pans are expensive but this pan was worth it and you’ll have it forever. I also cook with cast iron and ceramic. They all have their place in my kitchen.

  40. Is there any sort of toxic/leaching risk with the glass enamel coated cast iron?

    I just bought two pieces of stainless steel with an aluminum core but was unaware of teh nickle leaching properties. If I have no sort of acute reaction to this does that mean I am in the clear or are there some long term effects for which I must be cautious of?

    Thanks all.

  41. If you go non-stick go with Scanpan — like “The Bear.” PFOA-free and safe to use with metal utensils and at high temperatures. I recently splurged on a Scanpan Pro skillet and my 2x more expensive copper skillet from France now just collects dust.

  42. We recently purchased Dr. Mercola’s ceramic cookware and I LOVE IT!! It’s AWESOME! Food doesn’t stick too badly and if it does, it cleans up easily especially if you soak it for just a few minutes. For baking, there’s nothing better than Pampered Chef stones! I highly recommend both of these products!

  43. Hey,
    I Interesting post, I like the way that you write. I’ve bookmarked your blog and I’ll make sure to visit at least once a week.
    Also feel free to email me if you have some exclusive information on this subject, I don’t mind paying for great stuff!
    Regards

  44. I just purchased a saladmaster set. Pretty expensive but it will hopefully last a lifetime and it doesn’t leach anything. So far so good with it.

  45. Forgot to mention Le Creuset enameled stainless steel. Much lighter than cast iron with an inert cooking surface. Le Creuset call it Enamel on Steel.

  46. I have my great grandfathers cast iron pans, and some of my grandfathers.. ( they owned a diner in the 50’s ) Love the things.. 🙂
    Other wise it is the green life stainless for me.. I agree with Kate, Glass to bake with and the GRILL :))))))))

  47. I recently purchased a stainless steel gas grill. The instruction manual recommends seasoning the grates with high heat oils such as canola, and peanut, which are both considered non-primal. Can someone recommend a primal oil that I can substitute and still produce great non-stick results at high heat?

  48. Just looked up Martha Stewart’s cast iron and it looks like a lot of them have been recalled due to breaking apart and exploding! The manufacturer is in China..

  49. What about stone? Has anyone cooked with stoneware? Is it safe? It looks like this is more common in Japan.

  50. You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I find this topic to be really one thing that I believe I would never understand. It kind of feels too complex and extremely vast for me. I’m looking ahead on your next publish, I will try to get the dangle of it!

  51. I have been searching ceramic pans, only to find Scanpan made in Denmark with great reviews but it does have PTFE, and the other ceramic pans all seem to have a Glaze made of silicone on them.. some have other metals in the glaze, many say they are heated to 2,500 and so the metals are eliminated at that point Hum… I am Beginning to question the ceramic pan for health purposes and looking at the enamel cast iron weight or not. Just seems silly to buy a Ceramic “GREEN” pan and have PTFE or Silicone glazes on them. I have read reviews saying on other ceramic pans after use the pan was no longer non stick, I was told that is because the ones that do not use PTFE and use the glazes on the ceramic pans use silicone and it breaks down over time. So that can be a risk to your health, Sounds like enamel cast iron MIght be my choice. ANY one that can HELP shed more light on this and the whole “green ceramic pan issue” I would love to hear from others on this. THanks

  52. Anyone know how safe porcelain like porcelain cups? I notice on some plates and cups that they get scratched. Grayish scratches on white porcelain. Is it safe? Some of these cups are obviously cheap mugs that got scratched from stirring spoons. I wonder if we should throw these cups away or if it is considered safe? Any thoughts?

  53. Don’t buy the titanium pans! They lie and it is not pure titanium surface. I paid a small fortune for a set and they fail at around the 5 yr mark. Horrible customer service from Titanium Exclusive as they kept telling me to sent pics and I did with no reply. They said it should never peel because it’s all titanium but mine are definitely peeling. Biggest waste of money.. going to cast iron

  54. I am wondering if there is a safe glass set of stovetop and ovensafe cookware that will not burst when boiling water or frying in them,and also that will not impose any health risks. I also wanted to know if the newer, preseasoned cookware is safe.

  55. I bought a set of neova stainless from the vita-mix purveyors on whipple street in canton (I think), ohio several years ago. Unfortunately a relative has been living with me for a year and stirs the pot with spoons or forks which have left lots of scratches in the sauce pan. It’s stainless-clad aluminum, so I’m concerned the aluminum is leaching out (I’m going to get a replacement saucepan – with a long handle this time – and hide it from him!). I also have all sizes of cast iron skillets, a lidded stew pot, a pancake griddle and all have been bought at flea markets or yard sales. the newer cast iron ware is made in china and is very thin by comparison. plus who knows what poison they’ve embedded in it. Same goes for the glass and ceramic bakeware. original, made in USA.

  56. Does anyone have recommendations for baking dishes, specifically roasting and jelly roll pans?

    Is enameled steel as good as enameled cast iron? I need large pans and Le Creuset doesn’t make them.

    B

  57. Red copper pan looks really great to me. Can anybody add something in it so that we could understand it in a better way..

  58. Scanpan Professional (made in Denmark) is my favorite pan after my Lodge Cast Iron pan! It’s ceramic titanium nonstick and completely PFOA free from start of manufacturing to finish! (I should sell this stuff!) I bought it to make Chef Jacques Pepín’s classic french omelette! It never sticks! a little pricey, but worth it!

  59. I LOVE my Scanpan almost as much as my Lodge cast iron pan. I bought it to make Jacques Pépin’s french omelette! Made in Denmark. PFOA-free with Ceramic Titanium surface that is amazing to cook on. a bit pricey but worth it!