Food may be what sustains us, but you can sabotage even the healthiest diet if you cook your food in toxic pots and pans.
Fortunately, more people are getting wise to the dangers of cooking with certain kinds of pans — especially those that are Teflon-coated (I covered Teflon dangers in issue #211). So what kind of cookware is safe and nontoxic? This article is your quick consumer’s guide to what’s out there. . .
Continued below. . .
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The cookware industry is catching on to the dangers of nonstick chemical surfaces. In response, they’re developing new, safer products. Meanwhile, more consumers are turning to traditional cookware that isn’t coated with chemicals. And that’s what I prefer — high-quality traditional pots and pans. But before we get to those, let’s look first at the new high-tech wonders. . .
New cookware on the market:
The good and the ugly
First up: OrGREENic Kitchenware. The OrGREENic website claims you can “Go Green & Get Healthy” by taking advantage of their durable, all-natural 10″ Fry Pan. The makers say their pans have a ceramic, non-stick coating that makes it possible to cook “without oil, butter, or grease.” Better still, the OrGREENic cooking process “sears in the juices and flavor of your food without releasing toxic gases.” The website and infomercials make the claims convincing.
But several consumers have posted complaints about the product. The gripes range from poor fulfillment services and high shipping fees to objections over the cooking ability of the pan. Most of what I read centered on problems with the pan cooking things all the way through, like sunny-side up eggs. It seems that, even with a lid on, the lack of steam and grease make it hard for an egg to fully cook.
The surface of the pan is indeed nonstick, but requires that you “cure” it before using. This is done by covering the entire cooking surface in oil and heating it till it smokes. You have to repeat this process every few months to keep the pan seasoned.
Though I haven’t used the product myself, my guess is that’s it’s just your basic non-stick pan, albeit non-Teflon. Seems useful if you ever need to fry something and want an easy cleanup, but it doesn’t appear to have a long life. I don’t think this pan will change the face of cookware.
Another company, called Green Pan, makes non-stick pans coated in something called Thermolon, which is purportedly made from minerals instead of PFOAs (Perfluorooctanoic Acid — the main ingredient in Teflon that causes problems). Thermolon is said to be breakdown-resistant up to 450 degrees Celsius.
The company also boasts a green footprint, claiming they use half the energy to make their pans that it takes to make others. They’re off to a good start in terms of ratings overall, though early reviews say the pans work well initially but quickly become discolored and lose their nonstick ability.
Another new coating to consider is in the Earth Pan II line from Farberware. This company makes nonstick pans using something called SandFlow, which appears to be manufactured without PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene — another offending chemical found in nonstick surfaces). Keep in mind, the SandFlow coating didn’t rate highly in terms of non-stick properties — and that’s after looking at several consumer review websites.
Like other nonstick products, you can’t use metal utensils on any of these new breeds of pans if you want them to last a long time. Despite this, the makers claim their pans last up to three times longer than ceramic-based products.
Best cookware options
While we’re still waiting for the ultimate in nonstick, inexpensive cookware, there are several older options on the market. They’re pricier than your average coated frying pan, but in my book, they’re worth it.
I’d say stainless steel is about the safest type of cookware you’ll find. Stainless steel is made by mixing steel with chromium and nickel. The corrosion-resistant steel that results is easy to clean and handles abuse well. Most manufacturers caution against using abrasive materials when cleaning stainless steel. But in my experience, it’s hard to avoid resorting to an abrasive once in a while, to remove the gunk that just won’t come off any other way.
According to our sources, if you clean stainless steel frequently with an abrasive, you risk causing small amounts of chromium and nickel to be released. Chromium is harmless in small amounts — most of us actually take it as a food supplement. But it’s toxic in large amounts. Nickel isn’t poisonous, but can cause allergic reactions.
Side Note: If you’re wondering how to tell whether you’re allergic to nickel, the quickest way to find out is with jewelry. If nickel-plated earrings make your earlobes itch or if a necklace leaves a rash around your neck, there’s a good chance you have a nickel allergy. Sometimes rash and redness is followed by dry patches on the skin or even blisters. Opt for stainless steel or 18-karat gold jewelry instead.
After stainless steel, I’d recommend enameled or well-seasoned cast iron and porcelain cookware.
Copper with Stainless Steel Lining:
Stainless steel/copper cookware is supposed to be the best and safest choice in cookware. It’s also the most expensive, by far. The copper exterior needs more care than other exteriors, but its benefit lies in its excellent thermal properties. The interior of a copper pan is always coated with another metal, usually stainless steel, because you can’t cook directly on copper. It leaches into the food.
According to our sources, there’s some risk that different types of food and especially food with higher acidic levels can dissolve a copper pan’s lining. I find it hard to believe, as the steel lining on my copper pans is quite thick. Even so, it’s not a good idea to use an abrasive cleaner on copper pots. And steel-lined copper is another thing to steer clear of if you have a nickel allergy (nickel is sometimes used in the coating).
I’m not comfortable with aluminum cookware. It has a reasonable price tag and distributes heat evenly, but contact with acidic food can cause enough damage to leach aluminum salts into your food. Meaning, if you ever heat something as simple as tomato sauce, you’d need to be extremely careful.
There’s an ongoing controversy over whether excessive aluminum in the body contributes to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Some evidence supports this theory, but not enough to be conclusive. Small amounts of aluminum are probably harmless, but I don’t use aluminum cookware myself. Aside from the worries about toxicity, it’s a second-rate metal for cooking. The only thing it’s good for is popcorn, but for that I have to admit it’s the best.
Cast iron cookware has unmatchable heat capacity and heats evenly. The downside is that it takes longer to heat up. Worth noting is that some nutritionists say food cooked in an unglazed cast iron pan has twice the amount of iron than food cooked in another pan. You also have to be careful to guard against rust damage. In addition, cast iron cookware has to be well-coated with unsalted cooking oil for use. I’d also recommend against strong detergents on a cast iron pan.
And, yes, large amounts of iron are toxic. They’re associated with heart disease and Alzheimer’s (and probably other diseases). Iron toxicity may be one of the most overlooked and widespread medical problems in the country.
Consider buying enamel-coated cast iron pans instead of traditional cast iron. They’re easier to clean. I recently bought a Le Creuset casserole that’s cast iron lined with enamel. It’s a pricey piece of cookware, but a delight to use, and the surface is easy to clean. I haven’t tried an enamel skillet (I use copper lined with stainless steel) but I’m tempted.
Be aware and spread the word
Regardless of the type of cookware you use, it’s important to keep your pots and pans in good condition. Use them properly and avoid abrasive and corrosive cleaners, and you’ll improve your chances of avoiding potential toxins.
Lee Euler, Publisher