Don’t Pan-ic!

Searching for the Safest Cookware

When the health risks of the Teflon production process first became widely known last year, many consumers wondered if they should get rid of their non-stick pots and pans. While Teflon-maker DuPont insists that its famous coating is safe for cooks as well as eaters, skeptics claim that it’s hard to trust a company that failed to disclose known dangers to workers and neighbors at two of its manufacturing plants, where the incidence of cancers and birth defects has been unusually high.

© Lisa Blackshear

In the meantime, tried-and-true alternatives might go a long way toward easing the conscience of the cook in your home. But finding other choices may not be too easy, given that Teflon-coated aluminum accounts for the majority of cookware sold in the U.S.

The most common alternative, stainless steel, accounts for about a third of U.S. cookware sales, and is known for its durability and attractiveness. Cooks generally prefer "clad" or "three-ply" varieties that consist of an aluminum or copper base layer sandwiched between layers of stainless steel, ensuring more even heat distribution. All-Clad and Calphalon have reputations for high-quality stainless steel pots and pans, and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck gets high marks for his own line.

Ron Pickarski, founder and executive chef of the vegetarian packaged foods company Eco-Cuisine, favors stainless steel cookware from the Swiss company Kuhn Rikon. "It was rated the most energy-efficient cookware in Germany and is made of surgical stainless steel, with an aluminum base for even heat dispersion," he says. And even though he got his set in 1991 and has used it to cook thousands of meals, "it’s still as solid as the day I bought it."

However, some health practitioners do not share the enthusiasm for stainless-steel pans. "Stainless steel alloys all contain nickel, chromium, molybdenum, iron, carbon and various other metals," says osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola, who authored the 2003 book Total Health. He warns that cooking at high temperatures with stainless-steel, clad or otherwise, increases the likelihood that these metals—some of which can be toxic in higher doses—will leach into food. This is particularly true if cookware is pitted from extended use or storage of acidic foods.

For its part, though, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sees no health issues with cooking on stainless steel. "It’s so resistant to leaching, and while not quite inert, it can hold up really well," says George Pauley, a research scientist with the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety.

In With the Old

Cast-iron cookware, which your grandmother no doubt used to make many delicious and nutritious meals, is enjoying a renaissance these days as more and more healthy cooks rediscover its benefits. This thick, dense cookware is known for its unparalleled heat capacity and even distribution, and also provides an important nutrient in the form of iron leached into food. In fact, some health practitioners have pointed out that when cast iron was king prior to World War II, iron deficiencies were much less common.

Physician and chef Timothy S. Harlan, who runs the popular healthy cooking website DrGourmet.com, is a big fan of cast-iron cookware. "I have a number of sizes of cast-iron skillets that I like to use for such recipes as cornbread and apple pancakes," he says.

The dark side of cast iron, though, is maintenance and clean up. Cast iron can’t handle the water pressure and alkaloid detergents of the average dishwasher cycle, so hand washing is de rigeur. But the pay-off comes in time, when the oils and fats used in cooking polymerize to form a natural non-stick barrier. And for those cooks fearful of the seasoning process, Tennessee-based Lodge Manufacturing offers its popular Logic line of pre-seasoned cast iron pans.

A related choice is enamel-coated cast iron, which sports a porcelain enamel glaze so it requires no on-going seasoning and cleans up easily. "These pans are great for cooking recipes that you want to heat slowly and for a long time, using the even heat of cast iron," says Harlan, adding that the attractive enamel coating does not react with acidic foods, making it a perfect choice for crafting sauces.

Perhaps one of the most attractive cookware options, copper pots and pans, are also excellent conductors of heat and as such offer cooks greater control over delicate sauces and sautés. But since copper is highly reactive to acidic foods, such cookware is usually lined with tin or stainless steel to minimize leaching. Also, copper needs frequent polishing to retain is brilliant luster, although it will continue to work just fine with regular cleaning after use.

Another old standby worth mentioning is natural stone, such as soapstone or granite. Such material has long been a favorite surface for baking bread and making pizzas, but can also be used for other applications. The Vermont Marble, Granite, Slate and Soapstone Company crafts its leading TemperatureWare pots and pans out of soapstone. According to the company’s Jennifer McLemore, "Soapstone is ideal as cookware because it retains and distributes heat well without absorbing anything from the food."

Stone cookware’s excellent heat retention means that it can be moved right from stovetop to table—with oven mitts and trivets of course—where it will keep food warm for extended periods. One concern, however, is that it can crack if exposed to direct flame or a sudden dramatic change in temperature, so preheat it gradually and use for low-heat cooking only.

Forging Ahead

Although relatively new on the scene, anodized aluminum cookware is a sound non-stick alternative to Teflon-coated pots and pans. Clemson University Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center conducted extensive testing on different cooking surfaces, and found this newfangled cookware to be some of the safest on the market.

The electro-chemical anodization process locks in aluminum that could otherwise leach into food, and makes for what many cooks consider an ideal non-stick, acid- and scratch-resistant surface.

Ohio-based Calphalon leads the field in anodized aluminum cookware, but newer offerings from All-Clad (endorsed by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse) and others are entering the market.

Meanwhile, people who want to hold on to their existing Teflon pans may take heart in the fact that a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory committee convened earlier this year found no evidence of human health dangers. The group reported that the compound thought responsible for DuPont factory worker health problems, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is an "intermediate" chemical utilized during only one stage of production and not present in significant amounts in the final product. For its part, DuPont says any PFOA residue left in its non-stick coating would only be released in a consumable form if heated for hours to an otherwise unsafe temperature of 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Still, some consumer watchdogs remain skeptical. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has conducted its own research showing that preheating Teflon-coated pans for only a few minutes can cause fumes stro

ng enough to kill pet birds and debilitate people with persistent fever-like symptoms. EWG has petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to require that new non-stick cookware carry a warning label.

Remember that no matter what type of cookware you choose, homemade food of any kind is usually healthier (and cheaper!) than most of the fast food and takeout options widely available. So dig out those pots and pans, fire up the stove, and gather the family "round, because soup’s on!

RODDY SCHEER is a Seattle-based writer who loves to cook.