Dear Eartha: I’m getting married this summer and I’m finalizing my wedding registry. I’ve been looking at all the different options for pots and pans and I’m overwhelmed! I’ve heard of the dangers of Teflon and I would like to choose cookware that will not harm me or the environment. What should I look for?
Bride to be
What a conscientious consumer you are. These days it seems that we are constantly bombarded with warnings of toxic chemicals and harmful materials in unexpected places, such as our home furnishings and children’s pajamas. It can be alarming and sometimes it is easier to just turn a blind eye. It is important to recognize, though, that as consumers we have the power to drive markets toward environmentally sound products. This is why it is so important to research and read the reviews of products before you make a purchase.
Deciding on appropriate cookware for your household is an important purchasing decision and an investment. You will most likely be using it every day for years to come so it only makes sense that you would want cookware that doesn’t leach toxins into your food.
The cookware industry offers numerous “non-coated” options, meaning they have no nonstick coating. Stainless steel and cast iron are good options but can be more difficult when cooking omelets or pancakes, especially if you prefer a neat transfer from the pan to your plate with easy cleaning. Cast iron can even provide health benefits if you are iron deficient. Nonetheless, it is important to understand how to properly maintain your cast-iron cookware by keeping it well seasoned and not allowing it to get rusty.
If you want nonstick I would suggest looking for cookware labeled “PTFE and PFOA free.” PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as Teflon, is a fluoropolymer manufactured by the Dupont Co. It is used as a nonstick coating in cookware, a lubricant in machinery and a graft material in surgical interventions.
Although Teflon is more durable than the coating on the original “Happy Pan” manufactured in 1961, when it is scratched or overheated it can leach toxins into your food. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, aka C8, is used in the process of making PTFE. It is a known carcinogen and toxicant in animals and persists in the environment indefinitely.
When heated to temperatures above 660 degrees Fahrenheit, the PTFE coating will begin to disassociate, releasing the byproduct PFOA, which can cause polymer fume fever in humans and is lethal to birds. Definitely not recommended if you have a pet parrot! Thus, Teflon is not recommended for high-temperature cooking such as searing, sautéing and stir frying.
Another disadvantage of Teflon is that it cannot be converted from stovetop to oven.
The cookware industry now offers a variety of alternatives to Teflon. You may have heard of “hard-anodized aluminum.” The aluminum goes through an electrolytic process called anodization in which a chemical reaction between the aluminum and sulfuric acid increases the thickness of the natural oxide layer on the surface of the metal. The reaction creates a coating that fuses with the metal, making it extremely durable, non-toxic and resistant to decomposition. It is also a cheaper option than stainless steel. Because aluminum is so lightweight, anodized aluminum is also popular for camp stoves and backcountry cookware.
You can buy hard-anodized cookware with no coating or with a nonstick coating. If you go with the nonstick option, make sure you pay attention to what type of coating it has been treated with.
Other options include Ceramica and Thermalon technology, which are silicone and silicone ceramics. The pans in Cuisnart’s Green Gourmet line have a glazed ceramic. GreenPan has Thermalon, which uses nanotechnology. The ingredients in the coating are oxygen, silicone, carbon, aluminum and titanium. EarthPan makes a nonstick coating derived from sand. Finally, you can buy pans made with porcelain enamel, which is a coating made from fusing powdered glass to metal, creating a nonstick coating.
Many of these pans cannot be used on induction stovetops so keep this in mind and pay attention to the product description. Also, the reviews of these pans are mixed, with some saying the nonstick coating wears away over time. Definitely read the reviews and user guidelines so that you are properly caring for your cookware.
As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” So paying a little more up front for household items often means you will not have to replace them as often. This is something to consider from an environmental standpoint because the longer you can keep an item, the greener it becomes.
With all of the technological advancements, it is tempting to buy the latest and greatest. Yet, when you take into account the resources and energy consumed to make your pots and pans, you want to buy something that is not only environmentally friendly but made to last. For great online resources for pots and pans, check out www.chow.com or Good Housekeeping product reviews. Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials!
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the nonprofit High Country Conservation Center. Submit questions to Ask Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.