Sunday, March 27, 2016

Non-stick Cooking and Your Health

[Health and Medicine]

I love to cook and don’t shy away from complex and time-consuming recipes; in fact, I take pride in the artistry and technique that I employ.  But over the years, I have become increasingly aware, and therefore, concerned about the health implications of the foods, cooking techniques, and even cookware that I have been using.

One of the challenges of cooking, in general, and especially stovetop, but also in baking, is how to avoid sticking.  While I have been mostly concerned about this from the perspective of producing a beautiful end-product, the clean-up can be an issue as well. 

This article talks about non-stick cooking and the health-related factors that I think you might also find to be important enough to influence how you cook.  My last article was “Healthy Cooking with Oils” and this topic serves as a nice complement.

Non-stick cooking sprays:
When cooking sprays first appeared, it seemed too good to be true; they claimed to make cooking surfaces non-stick while adding no additional calories. 

However, with just a little closer inspection you will find a long list of ingredients that merit as least a little more research if not some genuine concern.  Remember Michael Pollan’s words to live by (quite literally); “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food,” including such ingredients as dimethylpolysiloxane, diacetyl and propellants.

  • Dimemythlpolysiloxane: This is a chemical that’s a form of silicone that helps keep the oil from foaming. It is also used in cosmetics, refrigerants and Silly Putty. After reviewing animal studies, the World Health Organization stated that they found no adverse health effects associated with Dimethylpolysiloxane. It might be wise to be uncomfortable about feeding yourself and your family with a chemical that has uses in cosmetics and Silly Putty.
  • Diacetyl: Studies have shown that exposure to diacetyl (the butter flavoring that is often added to cooking sprays) can increase your risk of lung disease. With long-term or repeated exposure, diacetyl can cause serious respiratory disease. While many cooking spray manufacturers no longer use this chemical, researchers are still concerned about the risk of lung disease.  
  • GMOs:  Cooking oils such as canola (rapeseed), corn and soy are commonly made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or ingredients that have been made through genetic engineering to be resistant to weather, pests and chemicals that would damage an all-natural plant. GMOs are in high use in the United States and many consumers have concerns about their safety including the herbicides and pesticides used in conjunction with these GMOs.
  • Propellants: When oil is placed in an aerosol can, you need to add some sort of force to get it out of the can and into your pan. That’s where propellants enter the picture. While most of the commonly used propellants are on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) list and considered safe to consume, you might be wise to avoid adding chemicals like as isobutane or propane to your diet.  Butane, isobutane and propane are colorless and odorless compressed gases that are derived from petroleum and natural gas. Organic non-stick spray more commonly use carbon dioxide as a propellant.

Cooking Spray Alternatives:
A reusable pump eliminates waste from used aerosol cans, helps to keep the environment healthier, and ensures you control the ingredients. Purchase these pumps at cooking supply stores and fill with an oil of your choosing. Instead of artificial chemicals creating the pressure to release the oil, you press a button that pumps the oil into a cylinder. The increased internal pressure in the cylinder releases the oil in small spritzes onto your pan or baking dish. You minimize the amount of oil used and still have all the convenience of a spray without any additives.

When it comes to baking, here is how you use coconut oil as a non-stick agent: take a bit of the oil in soft butter or melted consistency. Using your hands, a pastry brush, or a small piece of paper towel, wipe down the surface of the baking dish or pan that will be in contact with food until lightly or well coated.

That’s it. The amount needed will depend on what you’re baking. Baked goods such as cookies with a high fat content will not stick as much, whereas delicate items like cakes will need more.

If you need more insurance for your baked goods not sticking to your baking dishes, try the flour method: grease the dish down, add in about 1 tablespoon of the flour of your choice and “dust” the entire dish with it by swirling and tapping until the flour has coated the surface. Tap out the excess flour and proceed as usual.  This method is most often used for batter-based recipes with a high tendency to stick, such as cakes and quick breads.

Non-stick Cookware:
Well, if not cooking sprays, the how about non-stick cookware such as Teflon? In 2006, pots and pans with this special coating (Teflon is the best-known version) constituted 90 percent of all aluminum cookware sold, according to industry numbers. Yet despite non-stick's advantages (its surface makes cleanup easy and also allows cooks to use less oil and butter), it has come under fire in recent years over concerns about toxic chemical emissions. Dozens of reports and studies — from both industry and outside sources — have turned up conflicting conclusions.

The answer is a qualified one. They're safe, says Robert L. Wolke, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, as long as they're not overheated. When they are, the coating may begin to break down (at the molecular level, so you wouldn't necessarily see it), and toxic particles and gases, some of them carcinogenic, can be released.

"There's a whole chemistry set of compounds that will come off when Teflon is heated high enough to decompose," says Wolke.

Note: The thermal degradation of Teflon leads to the slow breakdown of the fluorinated polymer and the generation of a litany of toxic fumes including TFE (tetrafluoroethylene), HFP (hexafluoropropene), OFCB (octafluorocyclobutane), PFIB (perfluoroisobutane), carbonyl fluoride, CF4 (carbon tetrafluoride), TFA (trifluoroacetic acid), trifluoroacetic acid fluoride, perfluorobutane, SiF4 (silicon tetrafluoride), HF (hydrofluoric acid), and particulate matter. At least four of these gases are extremely toxic - PFIB, which is a chemical warfare agent 10 times more toxic than phosgene (COCl2, a chemical warfare agent used during World Wars I and II), carbonyl fluoride (COF2 which is the fluorine analog of phosgene), MFA (monofluoroacetic acid) which can kill people at low doses, and HF, a highly corrosive gas.

"Many of these are fluorine-containing compounds, which as a class are generally toxic." But fluoropolymers, the chemicals from which these toxic compounds come, are a big part of the coating formula — and the very reason that foods don't stick to non-stick.

If the danger begins when pans overheat, then how hot is too hot? "At temperatures above 500ºF, the breakdown begins and smaller chemical fragments are released," explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., an environmental toxicologist at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center. DuPont, inventor and manufacturer of Teflon, agrees that 500 degrees is the recommended maximum for cooking.

Sticking Point:
How fast will a non-stick pan reach 500°F, the point at which its coating can start to decompose? The Good Housekeeping Research Institute put three pieces of nonstick cookware to the test: a cheap, lightweight pan (weighing just 1 lb., 3 oz.); a midweight pan (2 lbs., 1 oz.); and a high-end, heavier pan (2 lbs., 9 oz.).

In a test (conducted by Good Housekeeping) five dishes at different temperatures on a burner that's typical in most homes. The results: It is surprising how quickly some of the pans got way too hot. Check out the test details in the table below.

Scrambled eggs 218° F
Cooked on medium for 3 minutes in a lightweight pan
Empty pan, preheated 507° F
Heated on high for 1 3/4 minutes in a lightweight pan
Chicken-and-pepper stir-fry 318° F
Cooked on high for 5 1/4 minutes in a lightweight pan
Pan preheated with 2 Tbsp. oil 514° F
Heated on high for 2 1/2 minutes in a lightweight pan
Bacon 465° F
Cooked on high for 5 1/2 minutes in a medium-weight pan
Hamburgers 577° F
Cooked on high for 8 1/2 minutes in a heavyweight pan

Steak 656° F
Cooked on high for 10 minutes in a lightweight pan

At very high temperatures — 660° F and above — pans may more significantly decompose, emitting fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a temporary flu-like condition marked by chills, headache, and fever. (The fumes won't kill you — but they can kill pet birds, whose respiratory systems are more fragile.) At 680° F, Teflon releases at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization. "However, even if those gases are formed, the odds that you're going to breathe enough of them to be sick are low," says Wolke, a point corroborated by other experts. What no one has yet researched is whether overheating these pans regularly for a prolonged period might have long-term effects.

If you feel that you must cook with non-stick cookware, consider that following:
    Never preheat nonstick cookware at high heat -- empty pans can rapidly reach high temperatures. Heat at the lowest temperature possible to cook your food safely.
    Don't put nonstick cookware in an oven hotter than 500 degrees.
    Use an exhaust fan over the stove.
    Use an infrared laser surface thermometer to more accurately assess the temperature at which you are using your non-stick pan. (e.g., Maverick)
    Keep pet birds out of the kitchen -- the fumes from an overheated pan can kill a bird in seconds.
    Skip the self-cleaning function on your oven. It cleans by heating to high temperatures, which can release toxic fumes from non-stick interior oven parts.
    Choose a safer alternative when buying new cookware

Non-stick Cookware Alternatives:
So you are interested in a healthy and safe non-stick cookware alternative, but you wonder which material is right for your needs? You options generally fall into the following 3 categories: ceramic, cast iron and stainless steel. Each of these types of cookware support healthy cooking, but the different features of each material are what stand them apart. 

Ceramic, cast iron and stainless steel are all cooking surfaces that contain no harmful coating and produce no harmful PFOA gas. So, you're covered there.

People tend to love cooking with ceramic cookware such as Xtrema. The lightweight skillet is an easy go-to pan for everyday cooking.

    No trace metals or chemicals leach from the cooking surface of our healthy cookware. If you like to cook without oil or butter, this is a good choice.
    Far-infrared cooking technology: cooks foods from both the inside and outside at the same time.
    Does not retain odors, bacteria or tastes.
    High temperature cooking: can withstand extreme temperature differences without cracking.
    Versatile: Use on stove-top, in the oven and broiler, even on the barbeque.
    Easy to clean: non-scratch, non-toxic ceramic glaze surface. Because Xtrema is non-porous, you don’t have to worry about scratching or pitting.
Ceramic cookware can break. Even though it's very durable, it's still fired clay--not the paper-thin-porcelain-vase type, but yes, it can break. And it is more of an investment--a good one though. 

Cast Iron: 
Cooking with cast iron is versatile, timeless, modern and simple. Taking your skillet from stove-top to broiler oven is what cast iron is made to do. Best cured with flaxseed oil because it is a drying oil that will develop a natural non-stick surface.

    Cast iron is well known for its even heating, heat retention, durability and value. 
    Finished with a layer of soy-based vegetable oil has been evenly applied to all surfaces of cast iron cookware, then baked-on at extremely high temperatures to deeply penetrate the surface.  
    Every time you cook in your pan, it continues to become seasoned more and more, while helping to prevent rust and creating a permanent, natural nonstick surface.
    Cast iron is durable enough to be passed on for generations.
    Lodge Logic cast iron cookware in made in America.
There's no getting around this: cast iron is heavy and may not be the best choice if lifting weight with your wrist is an issue. It's also a must to handwash cast iron and for some that's a deal-breaker, but for others, it's part of the process.

Stainless Steel:
18/10 stainless steel is a choice material for it's non-reactive quality, so you can be sure that the foods you cook will not take on another flavor. Commonly cured by bringing up to a high heat with a variety of cooking oils, just to smoke point and allowed to cool.  However, as effective as this is, the problem with this method is that it release free radicals that can become carcinogenic.

    Tri-ply construction of high grade 18/10 stainless steel sandwiched around an aluminum core.
    Helps cook foods faster and retains heat better
    Even cooking with few hot spots
    Heats up foods faster and uses less energy
    Doesn't react with acidic foods
    Durable and long lasting: expect 25 years of use
    Dishwasher safe
    Foods don't stick with use of oil
For some people who have a nickel allergy, the small percentage of nickel may pose an issue. Finally, unless your boiling water, the use of an oil is also a must.

In Conclusion:
Not only have I greatly changed my choices of oils based largely on the temperature for which they will be used, also for their non-stick qualities in combination with my iron and stainless cookware.  But there is no perfect answer as any way you look at it, you have to make one trade-off for another.

For example, although the popular method of seasoning stainless cookware with oil brought to the smoke point really works, I will be avoiding this for obvious health reasons, which make my stainless just a little more challenging to use. 

For other reasons, my cast iron pans require more care to maintain their seasoning, they are quite heavy and take more effort to clean properly.

Lastly, I have made quite the investment in my cookware over the years, including some non-stick pans, but I will now be very thoughtful about when and I how I use these pans and I am working towards their ultimate elimination from my cooking repertoire.  Perhaps you will arrive at the same or similar conclusions.

Enos, Deborah. "The Truth about What’s Really in Cooking Sprays." FOX News Health. November 30, 2015. Web.

"Healthy Home Tips: Tip 6 – Skip the Non-stick to Avoid the Dangers of Teflon." Know Your Environment. Protect Your Health. EWG - Environmental Working Group. Web.

"Canaries in the Kitchen; Teflon Offgas Studies." Know Your Environment. Protect Your Health. EWG - Environmental Working Group, 15 May 2003. Web.

"Creating a Healthy Kitchen: Guide to Natural Cookware." Mighty Nest. Web.

Schaffer, Amanda. "Nervous About Nonstick?" Good Housekeeping. 26 Sept. 2007. Web.

Shilhavy, Sarah. "Coconut Oil Cooking Spray: Healthy or Toxic?" Health Impact News. 27 Mar. 2016. Web.


  1. Don't waste your money on these pans. they work for a few weeks, but after that you'll be using more and more oil to keep food from sticking. Eventually even the oil won't help. One of the worst kitchen utensils I ever bought. 

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