So, you have embarked on a journey to healthy eating, and maybe even regular exercise, you buy mostly organic food and you take great care in choosing fresh wholefoods and in cooking everything yourself. However, did you know that what cookware and cooking utensils you use, and how you store your food, can undermine all the above efforts and put your health at risk?
Let’s look at the various options:
1. There is no point in buying organic foods if you are then going to cook them in non-stick cookware! Why? Because non-stick cookware, more commonly known by its commercial name of Teflon, is coated with PTFE, or polytetrafluoroethylene, which becomes PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, at high heat and is highly toxic. This is something that the producers of Tefal have known for many years, but they have tried to keep it under wraps. Studies have shown that PFOAs induce tumours in the liver, testes and pancreas, and since they are not metabolised in the body they also have a cumulative effect. Once the coating has chipped, the effects are increased and can cause flu-like symptoms and sickness (known as Polymer-fume fever).
Remember Erin Brokovich, played by Julia Roberts in the famous film with the same name? She is one of the many people that have long advocated the dangers of using Teflon cooking utensils. She even went to the trouble of producing a documentary called “The Devil We Know” to raise awareness. Unfortunately many people are still unaware of the dangers and only look at the good side (your food doesn’t stick).
2. Copper pots and pans are an alternative to non-stick. However, these must be coated so the food doesn’t come into contact with the copper. Excess copper ingested with your food can lead to connective tissue problems, Vitamin C deficiency, high levels of oestrogen and various types of cancer, as well as diarrhoea. Tin and nickel coatings are to be avoided except if you plan to use your copper pots and pans as decorative items only. Excess nickel can lead to heart disease, thyroid issues and cancer. What you should be looking for instead, is copper pots and pans lined with non-reactive stainless steel.
3. Aluminium cookware – for years this has been reportedly linked to Alzheimer’s, as well as ALS and autism. Recently the US Alzheimer’s Association reported that this link was not confirmed. However, the longer the food is stored in aluminium and cooked in it, especially acidic foods and green leafy vegetables (supposedly the healthiest foods you should be eating!), the higher the aluminium absorption. This is also true for aluminium foil. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that adults can ingest around 50mg of aluminium a day without harm, but why risk?
If you still decide to take choose aluminium pots and pans, then choose anodized aluminium cookware. Anodized aluminium has been soaked in an acidic solution and then exposed to an electric current. This results in aluminium oxide being deposited on the surface of the aluminium which reduces leaching. Remember to stay away from aluminium foil when cooking and storing foods! I find that using greaseproof paper works just as well for cooking and without the toxicity, and I use high quality glass containers for storing foods.
4. Cast iron – Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 1986 clearly showed higher iron content in food cooked in cast iron cookware, especially so for apple sauce which absorbed over 7mg of iron. According to medical guidelines, the recommended daily amount (RDA) of iron for an adult woman between the ages of 19 to 50 (the reproductive years) is 18mg. However, this goes down to 7mg for children. Cooking in cast iron pans therefore could be good if you are suffering from anaemia (iron deficiency) but not if your iron levels are already too high, which is a disease in itself (hemochromatosis) and can run in families. An iron overload could lead to hemochromatosis and consequent organ damage. Go for non-reactive, high-density cast iron without graphite coating when choosing your cast iron cookware, and don’t cook with lemon, pineapple, tomatoes, vinegar or other acidic foods which will just result in a much more metallic taste.
5. Glass, ceramic and enamelled cookware – Glass and enamelled types of cookware are usually manufactured with lead to confer the rigidity and colour uniformity. In the case of enamelled cookware the glaze may contain some lead. In children lead can lead to a higher risk of brain development. The alternative is to buy lead-free products identified by their labels, just beware as the standards change from country to country, some have wider allowances, so do your research! (And by the way, ceramic pots and pans are even less-stick and easier to clean than Teflon).
6. Stainless steel pots and pans – This is a combination of iron and other metals such chromium, nickel, molybdenum, titanium, copper and vanadium. We’ve seen the effects of an iron overload, the problems associated with nickel (including possible allergic reactions to it) as well as copper. Like for iron, small doses of chromium might not be an issue. The safe range is considered to be between 50 to 200 micrograms per day, with one meal estimated at delivering approximately 45 micrograms of chromium. It is worth noting that nickel is used as a cheap metal filler, so it will be found in smaller quantities in higher quality products which will probably be reflected in the price. The good news is that this is easy to identify. Have you ever noticed the numbers such as 18/8, 18/10 and 18/0 displayed on the label or on the cookware itself? The first number indicates the level of chromium, the second number that of nickel. If you are looking for the best quality alloy stainless steel, it is called T-304 and is considered the safest. Stainless steel is also chip-free so safer than many other types of cookware.
7. Silicone cookware doesn’t react and doesn’t produce fumes. It contains bonded silicone -which is a natural element found in abundance in sand and rocks - mixed with oxygen. So far no studies have highlighted any toxicity or health hazards. However, I prefer to err on the side of caution and have stayed away from it. I still remember how widely used cling film was only 30 years ago, before it was discovered that it was toxic. The new “healthier” version is still to be found, but it is a little less “clingy” than the original. I’ll sit it out for now.
8. Plastic – this is usually the most common choice for food storage and is widely used in microwave cooking. I could write a whole blog post on the many reasons to avoid microwave cooking in the first place, but I will save that for a later date. What you do need to know is that plastic containers contain BPA, or bisphenol A (linked to cancer, poor brain health and poor heart health, among others), PVC or polyvynil chloride and phthalates, all of leach into food, especially worsened when microwaving. It also reacts to acidic, fatty and salty foods. Isn’t it easier to buy good quality lead-free glassware? That way you will be improving not just your own health but also that of the environment!
With regards to plastic chopping boards, apart from the BPA, think of all the germs that proliferate in the cuts and move over to the more traditional, eco-friendly and healthier option of bamboo or wooden cutting boards. All you need to do is use different boards for meat and vegetables, and disinfect them thoroughly after use.
Overwhelmed by all the above? I don’t blame you. It has taken me a long time to gather all the information over time. My advice is to remember that in general the best pots are thick bottomed, to prevent burning. The best utensils are wooden rather than metal, which also decrease the possibility of chipping whilst reducing the metal taste to foods, an old fashioned mortar and pestle rather than a plastic food processor, bamboo or pottery steamers, good quality glass or ceramic containers for herbal teas and infusions, and wooden chopping boards.
The best way to keep them all clean is by using water and bicarbonate of soda to clean burnt food and reduce the scraping which can cause damage to cookware. To eliminate smells soak in boiling water and salt, lemon juice or bicarbonate, depending on the type of cookware you are handling.
The bottom line is don’t be cheap when you buy your cookware! Choose a few selected pieces of high quality cookware and take care of them. This can be done over time. As each pot and pan needs to be replaced, buy a healthier replacement. You also don’t need more than a few well selected pieces (think grandma’s kitchen again). Remember your health is at stake.