You put a lot of time (and money) into eating clean… heck, living clean. Between recycling appropriately, swapping out non-toxic household cleaners, buying every water filter ever, shopping at three different markets, and triple checking labels to make sure the food you bring into your home is organic, free range, grass-fed, farm-raised, and spiritually enlightened, it can feel like your commitment to health is a bit of a part time job — or a small side hustle at the very least.
But, is all of it moot if you ignore one of the most major threats to your clean lifestyle –– your cookware? Before you start freaking out, making a mess of purging your kitchen cabinet, Googling worst case scenarios, and wondering why everything in our lives is trying to kills us, let’s break down what about your cookware may be causing unwanted toxicity.
Here are the items that can get the boot…
Metals: Aluminum and Copper —
As one of the most prevalent minerals, aluminum is an ideal candidate for affordable manufacturing, including cookware. However, while it’s a naturally occurring element, being a soft reactive metal, it can cause serious side effects when ingested. It’s actually a known neurotoxin that researchers estimate inhibits more than 200 biologically important functions in your body, with excessive exposure linked to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and damage to the nervous system.
Another commonly used cookware metal is copper. It’s coveted in professional and home kitchens alike because of its incredible ability to heat quickly and evenly, as well as looking damn sexy hanging on a rack. However, copper is extremely susceptible to leaching into dishes (especially when exposed to acidic foods like tomato sauce). While some copper is actually considered healthy, overconsumption has been linked to the development of ulcers and liver damage.
Chemicals: Teflon (PTFE) and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) —
One of the biggest risks in your cookware is unfortunately your most convenient. Non-stick pans are some of the worst offenders. Teflon, or less commonly known as polytetraﬂuoroethylene, has been shown to release at least six toxic gases when heated on average stovetop ranges, several of which are carcinogenic. Additionally, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is another non-stick chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon that has also been linked to adverse side effects, such as the development of tumors, neonatal death, and toxic effects on the liver and immune and endocrine systems.
Plastics: BPA and Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) —
Surely you’ve seen an increasing amount of “BPA Free” labels popping up on plasticware everywhere –– and for good reason. BPA (Bisphenol-A) is a synthetic compound found in plastics like cutting boards and food storage containers, and is a well known endocrine disrupter that can lead to altered immune function, early puberty, infertility, and ovarian dysfunction, not to mention liver damage, thyroid issues, and obesity.
It’s also a good idea to avoid brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which can be found in most plastic cooking utensils. Makes sense, right? How else are you going to scramble eggs without your spatula melting into the yolks? Unfortunately, this coating has been linked to liver and thyroid damage, as well as negative effects on the kidneys.
Ok, now that we’ve identified the enemy, it’s time to stop sleeping with it. There are better alternatives out there…
Most ceramic cookware contains no metal, and many brands are transparent about mentioning that their glazes are made with non-toxic, inorganic minerals and oxides. Aside from being a safer, more non-toxic choice, ceramic cookware cooks evenly, is extremely durable under high heat, and is pretty freakin’ dreamy to look at.
Cast Iron —
If you want to look like a real chef boyar-know-what-the-f*ck-you’re-doing (while keeping it safe as hell) reach for your cast iron — it’s been used for generations for a reason. It requires minimal cleaning, is durable, long-lasting, and can be used on both the stovetop and in the oven. And, if you season it correctly, you’ll actually create a natural non-stick surface.
Skip the plastic food storage containers and go for glass — it’s safer and way less smelly when you forget about leftovers wedged in the back of the fridge! Also, unless you drop it fairly hard, it’s going to last way longer than plastic.
Wood and Bamboo —
Bamboo doesn’t always stand the test of time (or children), but it’s guaranteed not to carry the chemicals and toxins of plastic alternatives. You can use bamboo in food storage, cooking utensils, and cutting boards. Same goes for old wooden spoons and boards. (Just make sure they aren’t coated in any non-stick chemicals or toxic glazes before purchasing.)
So here’s the thing… none of us real people have the time or money to do a full on kitchen cleanse, and nor do we have time travel machines to go back and update our wedding registries with more woke cookware. So, while you methodically and rationally start the long process of transitioning to a cleaner kitchen, what can you do in the meantime?
Clean up smarter —
Your toxic cookware need not be shunned and punished for being bad. Treat them right! Make sure to only wash pots and pans with natural dish soaps that don’t contain additional stripping chemicals that can further react with and stir up toxins. Also avoid using abrasive sponges or scrubbers like steel wool, which can cause the non-stick material and chemicals to flake, potentially mixing into your food or further releasing into the air.
Cook strategically —
Try not to cook at super high temperatures with your current toxic cookware, as heat can often cause chemicals to leach even further into food and into the air as gases. It might take longer to prepare food at a lower temp, but it’s definitely safer. And, when baking, use unbleached parchment paper as a barrier between food and chemically treated surfaces until you can replace your pans.
If you’re still paralyzed in the middle of a Sur La Table deciding between two pans that promise not to kill you and your family, just do your homework. The Internet can be scary, so if you’re still skeptical about a product, simply pick up the phone and call the manufacturer to double check the old fashion way. Just because a brand is labeling their cookware as ceramic doesn’t mean it isn’t coated with a lead or copper coating. Your family might think you’re insane for pulling everything out of the pantry in a flustered fury, but it could mean avoiding serious health issues, so go forth and cook clean.
Heather Sundell is a Los Angeles-based writer, blogger, storyteller, and content and branding professional. Her writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Refinery29, Forbes, XOJane, Los Angeles Magazine, and more. You can find her online as her digital alter ego @MissHezah, blogging at MissHezah.com, or, when it doubt, check the mall.