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Toxic Cookware: The Truth About Non-Stick Pans

If half of your omelettes and stir fries always end up stuck to the base of your pan, you’ve probably contemplated springing for a non-stick pan. But there are a few things to know before making a decision – starting with the detrimental effects it can have on your health. Let's get into reasons to avoid this popular pan, and how you can reduce the risks if you’re committed to the non-stick life.

Non-stick pans – made from a synthetic material known as Teflon – are the answer to many a cook’s frying woes – but research suggests they may come at a dangerous cost. Let’s evaluate the risks, how to mitigate them, plus dive into a few safer, non-toxic alternatives.

The risks of non-stick pans

Prior to 2013, non-stick Teflon pans often contained a chemical known as PFOA – perfluorooctanoic acid – which has been linked to a range of health conditions, from thyroid dysfunction to liver and kidney disease. Luckily, the non-stick pans you’ll find in stores today are free from this toxic substance – but that doesn’t mean there are no risks. Heating your pan to temperatures over 260 degrees Celsius can cause the coating to break down, which release toxic chemicals out into the air. Now if you’re in the vicinity of the kitchen – and, we don’t know about you, but we tend to be present during the cooking process – there’s a good chance you’ll inhale these dangerous fumes. This could cause what’s known as “Teflon Flu”.

More specifically, it’s called polymer fume fever and involves a series of flu-like symptoms:

  • Chills and fever
  • Headaches
  • Body aches and pains

Most people recover within days, but for a small few, there could be more serious ongoing effects like lung damage and respiratory issues. Note that these more concerning consequences have been associated with pans heated to nearly 400 degrees Celsius for hours on end, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be hitting those temperatures on your average dinner cook-up. 

Reducing the risk when using non-stick

  • Keep the heat down:The chemicals are released upon exposure to high heats, so be sure to keep things well below 260 degrees. Low to medium heats are ideal.

  • Keep it out of the oven: If you’re baking at high temperatures, don’t put your non-stick pan in the oven. Broiling is another one to put on the “avoid” list – the temperatures can climb up scarily fast.

  • Keep the windows open:Make sure you’ve got some airflow in your kitchen while cooking, this will help disperse any chemical fumes. At the very least, have your stovetop exhaust fan running.

  • Have something in the pan:It’s important to have some oil, liquid or butter in the pan before you start heating it – without that buffer the pan will heat up faster.

  • Ditch the metal:If you usually scrape your pan with a metal fork or spatula, it’s time for a utensil overhaul. Silicone spatulas prevent scratches and damage to the coating of the pan. You’ll also want to avoid harsh scourers which, again, damage the coating.

  • Regularly replace your pans: If you start to notice scratches or damage on your non-stick pans, don’t hesitate – get yourself a new one. The chemical risks are elevated when you keep using those old pans, and it's just not worth the danger to your health.

Alternatives to non-stick pans

If the risks of non-stick pans are a little too off-putting, there are other options – and they don’t have to involve scraping your food off the base of the pan!

  • Cast-iron pans: If you’re looking for a safer alternative without sacrificing those non-stick properties, cast-iron is your solution. Just be sure to season it according to the directions, and you’ll find it’s naturally non-stick. Plus, there’s no need to hold back on the heat – unlike Teflon pans, these guys can handle high temperatures without those toxic fumes!
  • Stainless steel: This is a classic, durable option for a pan, which can be safely cleaned in a dishwasher with little risk for scratches. Just be sure to have some oil or liquid to prevent sticking – it’s not quite as impressive as its cast-iron competitor.
  • Stoneware pans: These are excellent non-stick pans, just be sure to follow the proper seasoning instructions. It’s great with high temperatures and durable – win, win!

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