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What Is the Safest Cookware for Your Health and Are Your Pans Harmful?

June 09, 2020 8 min read

What Is the Safest Cookware for Your Health and Are Your Pans Harmful?

Everyone knows - you are what you eat. Your food can and will affect your wellbeing and health.

But that's not all. The same is true for utensils we cook our food with. So, what is the safest cookware for your health?

Chances are, you already know that not all cookware is built the same. Some materials are more expensive than others. Some retain heat better (or worse) than their counterparts. And some cooking materials will pose you health risks that others won't.

And before you purchase a sparkly new set to cook meals for yourself and your family, it's certainly important to know whether it's safe.

So, in this post, we're going to talk about the different kinds of cookware - and find out which is the best, safest cookware for your health.

In no particular order, these are the safest cookware options we're going to be talking about:

  • Cast iron
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum
  • Ceramic
  • Graniteware
  • Copper

What About Non-Stick?

Let's tackle the elephant in the room from the get-go. Non-stick pans are not making the list. While they're wildly popular, they're also a center of attention for a lot of people concerned about the safety of cookware.

Not surprisingly. That's because of PFOA, a substance that was used to make Teflon, a material used in all kinds of non stick cookware.

If you cook on a PFOA layer, small levels of fumes enter your body when cooking and consuming meals. And there's been a proven link between PFOA and thyroid disease, liver damage, and various types of cancers.

Luckily, in 2013, it was announced that PFOA was removed from the market. Such non-stick cookware were phased out entirely by 2015 and replaced by PTFE, a very similar substance that mostly avoids all the issues of its predecessor.

"Mostly" is the keyword.

At the temperature of 500°F, PTFE also starts to decompose and enter the human body. And there have been reports linking it to possible flu-like symptoms and headaches. Which is pretty nasty and worrying at the same time.

This is why you need to be extremely cautious when cooking with nonstick pans and pots. However, 500°F is a lot. Something like a weekend stir fry won't get you anywhere close to that mark.

But let's assume a hypothetical situation. If you, for example, was cooking a steak and let a dry pan heat up on high heat for a few minutes on high - now you're easily up to 500°F and playing with fire. Both literally and figuratively.

So, while nonstick cookware is certainly much safer than it was a decade ago, it's still a risk. And if you're not a risk-taker when it comes to your health, you should throw your non-stick cookware away and carry on reading.

1. Cast Iron

Out of all alternative options out there, cast iron is incredibly versatile, very durable, and relatively inexpensive - so, it's no surprise that it's one of the most popular cooking materials out there.

But the question still stands - is it safe to use?

Long story short - yes, it is. Molded like a single piece of metal, an alloy of carbon and iron, cast iron uses no other additives or toxic substances. Even better is the fact, that cast iron is naturally non-stick, allowing anyone to replace non-stick pans and use this healthier alternative, consuming less cooking fat in the process.

And it's seriously versatile, meaning that you can have an entire array of cast iron cookware, without ever needing to choose an alternative option, that may actually pose some risk for your health. You can get everything, from pots and pans, to something like a cast iron griddle.

Pros of cast iron

  • Incredibly versatile. A wide variety of cast iron items allows you to make just about anything in them. They're oven, and stovetop-safe, let's you explore indoor grilling and some varieties even work on induction cooktops.
  • Naturally non-stick. A preseasoned cast iron pan is naturally non-stick, without the need of any additional substances.
  • 100% natural. Cast iron cookware is made out of an allow of carbon and iron.

Cons of cast iron

  • May leach iron. A small amount of iron (naturally found in food) may be present.

2. Stainless Steel

Stainless steel - the old reliable. A staple in many kitchens, it's very popular. But if you're wondering if stainless steel cookware is safe, well...It also comes with a couple of health concerns you should be aware of before purchasing.

Now, the steel itself is not the problem. It's completely non-toxic, the same as cast iron. The issue is the substance that coats it.

Usually, you'll get one of the two options. It's going to be either chromium or nickel. Chromium is needed for the human body, but only in small amounts, and can be taken from food. Nickel, on the other hand, is considered harmful to the human body. And cooking in nickel-coated cookware it almost certain to have you digest at least some of it.

Sure - not all steel pots are the same. And if you are interested in purchasing stainless steel cookware safe from nickel, make sure to get the one that has more chromium in it.

How? It's easy to pick the healthier option. On your pot, look for the number "18" and see the number next to it. You're probably going to see combinations such as 18/10, 18/8, and 18/0. What are these numbers?

They show the percentage of chromium and nickel in your cookware. So, the 18/8 cookware is going to be 18% chromium and 8% nickel.

Therefore, the healthiest option for you is going to be all chromium, the 18/0 grade.

Unsurprisingly, it's also the most expensive one. And sadly, you may not get the opportunity to see exactly which alloy you are buying (especially when buying online).

Pros of stainless steel

  • 18/0 grade includes no harmful substances
  • Reliable and versatile

Cons of stainless steel

  • Cheaper grade pots may leach harmful nickel
  • 18/0 grade sets can be tricky to get, are expensive

3. Aluminum

Aluminum is a terrific heat conductor, and aluminum cookware is really inexpensive. However, aluminum itself has a few problems: it reacts with acidic foods and leaches pretty badly. And aluminum consumption is linked to Alzheimer's disease, as well as some others.

But not to worry: there are two commonly-used options to treat aluminum cookware, so it avoids this problem. It's either a non-stick layer or anodization.

Now, let's immediately skip over the non-stick part. We've been there, we know what's up.

Anodized aluminum, on the other hand, is actually quite interesting. Treated with an electrochemical process, aluminum forms a non-reactive rust layer around itself. And just like that, leaching into the food is reduced to a complete minimum.

But even then, we still have to talk about the non-stick qualities of aluminum. Or a lack of them, anyway. Food cooked on the aluminum cookware certainly tends to stick on the surface.

Sure, anodized nonstick pans are a thing, but without an additional layer, aluminum won't share the nonstick properties of something like cast iron. And that's a bummer.

Pros of aluminum

  • Anodized aluminum barely leaches any metals
  • A pretty affordable option

Cons of aluminum

  • Some aluminum pans use potentially harmful non-stick surfaces
  • Non-anodized aluminum leaches into the food
  • Anodized aluminum is not non-stick

4. Ceramic

Ceramic cookware has a reputation for posing a very low risk to your health. We have to agree. After all, at its core, ceramic is nothing but clay, baked at super high temperatures. Nothing wrong with that...right?

Oh. It's a bit more complicated than that.

You see, ceramic cookware's great reputation also contributed to a lot of problems. To put it simply - not all ceramic is the same, but everyone wants to claim they are.

To avoid confusion, let's classify the ceramic cookware into two different types:

  • Ceramic-only cookware.
  • Ceramic-coated cookware, usually just a metal utensil with a ceramic coating.

The ceramic-only cookware certainly deserves all the praise it gets. It's eco-friendly, entirely non-toxic, and non-reactive, making it a very solid option for most cooks. However, a lot of it won't work on a stovetop, especially if it's an induction one.

Ceramic-coated cookware is a different story. It can work on everything, for everything. After all, it's basically a metal utensil, only covered with a thin layer of ceramic.

And there, the story gets a little bit confusing. A lot of the makers advertise their products to be "green", or "100% natural" - but it's not a guarantee for this to be the case. The coated cookware often includes synthetic bonding substances, or might even use PFOA (the nasty non-stick material we spoke about earlier).

Also, glaze and paint on the ceramic tools (especially older ones), can potentially include lead - a highly toxic substance.

So, while ceramic tools are genuinely good for your health - as they're natural and completely non-toxic - there's still a certain risk that you can buy a set that won't be made up to the modern standards. If you trust the company you're buying from - ceramic is great. If not - proceed at your own risk.

Pros of ceramic

  • The coating does not wear off quickly
  • 100% natural and non-toxic

Cons of ceramic

  • Certain cookware can still include harmful substances
  • High-quality sets can set back quite a lot

5. Graniteware

Graniteware - also known as enamelware - has nothing to do with actual granite. Instead, it's regular metal with a coating of enamel, giving it a lovely, granite-like pattern. Chances are, you probably had a glimpse of it back in the day, when it was all the rage.

It's much less popular now - is the reason related to health concerns?

Well, not really. Modern graniteware cookware does not contain any widely-known harmful substances. They're both oven and stove ready. But there are still reasons why this might not be the best cookware for you out there.

The enamel coating is prone to chipping. Both itself and the glass cooktops. We don't want to split hairs, but when talking about "healthy cookware", we often don't think about the one responsible for glass shards.

It's also not really non-stick and will require a big glug of fat for cooking pretty much anything. While it may be marketed as such, it simply can't hold a candle against cast iron or ceramic. Also, modern graniteware utensils simply tend to be on the lighter side, meaning they won't hold heat as well and won't be suited to all kinds of cooking.

Pros of graniteware

  • No harmful substances used
  • Oven and stove-ready

Cons of graniteware

  • Prone to chipping
  • Doesn't hold heat well

6. Copper

Copper is less commonly found in a regular kitchen. The most expensive out of the options on this list, it's valued for both the aesthetics and supreme heat conduction - it conducts the heat up to 5x better than regular iron, and up to 20x better, when compared to stainless steel!

But that comes with certain warnings and risks - which is why I recommend copper cookware for professional chefs, and even then, used only in tandem with something like cast iron.

What are those health warnings?

Well, first of all, copper is extremely toxic. Which is why FDA cautions (and we completely agree) against unlined copper for food use. This is why the copper cookware is usually lined with another metal, such as tin, which is not reactive, and won't leach into your food.

However, tin is also very soft and has a low melting point of around 450°F. This means that leaving the pan unattended over high heat and scrubbing hard while cleaning will remove the tin, and expose the copper. Which is bad. And while tin-lined copper cookware is completely safe and healthy to use, you are at risk of making it harmful. Which is why we don't recommend it as a safe cookware option.

Pros of copper

  • Naturally non-stick. The tin-lined copper pans are great for cooking in low fat
  • Amazing heat conduction

Cons of copper

  • Requires certain care and knowledge to use
  • It may be harmful if the lining is damaged 

What cookware is best for your health, then?

There's no one answer. Instead, there are several.

Cast iron cookware is certainly a great all-around option. Naturally free from any additives such as lead or PFOA, it's going to be a great option at any household.

Ceramic is great, too. It's 100% non-toxic and non-stick. If you find a reliable option, it's a great choice, but it might cost extra. The same is true for something like copper, anodized aluminum, or stainless steel cookware.

There are plenty of great options that will be safe for you and your family. But remember: no matter what you choose, variety is important. Throw some veggies in a fermentation crock and you’ll always have a healthy side to go with whatever you cook up!

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