Not all cookware is considered safe by Functional Medicine standards. Read on to find out which products can leach toxins into your food (and should be avoided) and which ones are the ones we consider safest:
When I moved into my first apartment, I decided not to purchase the cheapest items I could find. It made more sense to thoroughly research my big ticket items and purchase high-quality products that would both function seamlessly and last a long time.
I researched everything from vacuum cleaners and mattresses to water filters and chef’s knives. Items I’d use frequently needed to be of great quality.
Because I spend a lot of time in the kitchen (as any nutritionist or health-conscious being should!), I made sure to research cookware. I was specifically looking for the following criteria:
- Safety — I spend enough time worrying about the toxins in my food. I’d rather not have to worry about the toxins I am putting INTO my food by cooking them in the wrong pots and pans.
- Functionality — I want my pots and pans to heat evenly and quickly. I also didn’t want to have to use oven mitts to grab a hot pan because the handle gets too hot.
- Durability — I wanted my cookware to look and function well for many years.
- Cost — I didn’t want to spend any more than was necessary.
For the sake of this article, I will focus on the safety aspect of the cookware, but make recommendations that take into account all four of these criteria.
First of all, what cookware is NOT safe?
Anything that is coated with Teflon (think non-stick pans) should be avoided in the kitchen. Teflon is made of a specific type of Perfluorocarbon (PFC) that makes the surface of cookware resistant to sticking. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), PFC exposure has been associated with kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid issues, obesity, low birth weights, and preeclampsia. The EPA developed and industry implemented a global stewardship program with the goal of eliminating these chemicals from emissions and products by 2015.
PFCs can last years in humans and while the research is not entirely clear on the long-term consequences of persistent, low-level exposure, it’s best to avoid these entirely.
Aluminum can leach into foods through the use of aluminum cooking materials. Release of metal ions is increased when in contact with acidic foods such as tomato sauce and with the use of spices.
Aluminum is a known neurotoxin that should be avoided. It has been found to damage the brain itself and also to damage the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from potentially damaging substances (chemicals, viruses, bacteria, etc.). When damaged, this barrier can become leaky and allow unwanted substances into the brain circulation.
Aluminum exposure has also been associated with the development of developmental disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, reproductive issues, autoimmune conditions and more.
While copper cookware has a classic look, the copper from uncoated pots and pans will also leach into your food. While some copper is essential, frequent use of copper cookware over time can lead to elevated levels of copper, and zinc depletion (by competition).
However, you can choose stainless steel-lined copper pots or copper-bottomed pots which will heat quicker and more evenly than stainless steel.
What cookware should you use caution with?
Non-stick Green Pans:
The green pans are coated primarily with Thermalon, which is mostly silicon dioxide. While in theory silicone is safe to cook with (and a great choice for kitchen utensils), it is not clear if other components of these pans are problematic. If you MUST choose a non-stick pan, this is certainly a safer alternative; but there are still better options (see below).
While properly glazed and tested ceramic cookware is an excellent choice (see below), some improperly-glazed ceramic cookware can contain lead. If you’re unsure of your ceramic cookware, you can test it for lead using these simple lead check swabs.
What cookware should you cook with?
- Cast Iron:
In general, cast iron cookware is safe and effective in the kitchen. It may even be a great addition for those who are deficient in iron, as some of the iron will make its way into the food. While cast iron is fairly heavy and takes a while to heat up, it holds heat very well and is oven-safe. Plus, a well-seasoned pan is non-stick.
Tips on taking care of your skillet: Do not clean with soap, as this will remove the seasoning on the pan. Clean with water or scrub with lemon and salt, dry, then coat with oil. To season pan rub with olive oil and heat in s low temperature oven for 1 hour.
A word of caution: If you have a history of iron-overload (hemochromatosis), you should avoid cast iron cookware, especially for acidic foods. Post-menopausal women should also use caution, as monthly menstrual periods often mask hemochromatosis until a woman enters menopause.
Flax oil as seasoning oil for cast iron? We are very curious about this idea. Apparently flax, a delicate polyunsaturated fatty acid, may polymerize with the cast iron when exposed to heat, thereby bonding to the metal and creating a safe, non-stick surface for cooking! Wow. Normally we avoid heating flax oil to avoid oxidizing the delicate fats. We are looking into this idea and confirming its safety and will keep you posted J
Brands we recommend:
Lodge Cast Iron Skillet – Get it with the silicone handle, as the handles tend to get very hot.
- Stainless Steel:
Stainless steel is another safe cooking option. Along with being non-toxic, stainless steel cookware is durable, heats quickly, and has been found to brown food better than non-stick alternatives.
Tips for cooking: In order to minimize sticking (like when frying an egg), use a generous amount of oil/fat to coat the bottom of the pan and give it time to heat up. The hot oil will create a layer that prevents sticking.
All-Clad Stainless Steel Set — This is the best brand for stainless steel cookware, but you will certainly pay for it.
Calphalon Tri-Ply Stainless Steel Set — This is a more economic option but still of very high quality.
Note: if you have a nickel sensitivity, you may still want to avoid stainless steel as it does contain some nickel.
- Enamel-covered Cast Iron:
Although Enamel-covered cast iron ware can be very expensive (Le Creuset, for example), it does not react with any food; therefore, it is totally non-toxic. It lasts many years and holds the heat well because it is so heavy. It is not non-stick but is a pleasure to look at, coming in many different colors. Less expensive brands are widely available.
- Glass and Ceramic:
Glass cookware tends to be mostly for baking, though some stovetop pans are available. It is completely non-toxic, but not as durable as some other ware, and doesn’t hold heat as well as, say, cast iron. It tends to be inexpensive.
Ceramic cookware is non-toxic as long as it is properly glazed (glazed clay pots have glass-like surface). It’s pretty durable, heavy, good at conducting heat, and versatile: goes from stove-top to oven to freezer. It is attractive, though not non-stick. It is pricey but less expensive than Le Creuset. (https://www.ceramcor.com/whyxtremaishealthy/)
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This article was contributed by Jon Mitchell. Jon is a board-certified Physician Assistant and has been working as a PA for the past two years. Jon is also a certified Foundation Training instructor and has taught many clients how to heal their chronic pain on their own. After spending the past 5 years optimizing his own health through diet, exercise, meditation, and other modalities, Jon not only wants to help clients get healthy, but to live vibrantly. He has been featured on both StrengthRunning.com and LuckyVitamin.com. In his free time, Jon reads voraciously on all things health related and loves trail running with his dog Bailey, natural movement, great food, and exceedingly long walks on the beach with his fiancée, Jenn.