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The truth about Teflon: Which cookware materials are best to use

Mark Ordonez

Is your cookware posing a hazard to your health? In recent years, some lightweight, non-stick materials have been scrutinized for containing toxic chemicals that can seep into food.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Laura Vandenberg, assistant professor in the environmental health sciences department at the UMass-Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, joins the program to discuss which materials are safe to use when cooking.

Cookware to avoid

Non-stick cookware makes cooking easy. It saves time. Vandenberg recognizes these facts. However, with the ease comes dangers.

Teflon is among the most well-known non-stick materials in use. A major chemical component in the material is PFOA, which can take centuries to break down and can cause cancer.

While it is not necessarily known for certain, Vandenberg says a lot of other brands of non-stick cookware will contain PFOA as well. She said all non-stick materials will include chemicals of some kind.

The professor recommends using Teflon materials on low heat in order to limit chemicals seeping into food. She also says if food burns on a Teflon pan do not eat it and air out the house.

Another material that has concerned people for nearly 50 years is aluminum. The lightweight, inexpensive substance has been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s over the years.

Vandenberg says there is not enough evidence to conclusively attribute some cases of these diseases to aluminum. However, it is a highly reactive metal that can migrate into food.

Companies are changing to the production of treated aluminum pans, which are dipped in a bath of another chemical so the aluminum doesn’t react with the food while cooking, but there are still questions about the safety of the chemical in the bath.

Vandenberg realizes some people cannot afford to buy an all new set of cookware. That being said, when it is time to buy a new piece, she says to avoid buying non-stick and aluminum.

Good to go

The best materials to purchase when it comes to finding safe cookware are those that are inert or chemically inactive.

Some inert materials Vandenberg recommends include:

  • Glass
  • Ceramic
  • Titanium
  • Most high-grade stainless steel

While these substances are at the top of the professor’s list, she did clear a few others for cooking use with some suggestions.
Cast iron cooking is better than non-stick or aluminum, but Vandenberg pointed out issues have arisen fairly recently about exclusive cast iron cooking, which could cause people to get too much iron.

Copper pans with a stainless steel lining on the inside are great, according to the professor. They are good for conducting heat and cook evenly.

For people on a tight budget for cookware, Vandenberg shared a tradition her husband has started with her. Each year, he gets her one nice pot or pan at the holidays as a way to start building a nice set of stuff.