The dangers of non-stick cookware - is there a healthier option?

A few years ago, it was time to scrap the Caphalon non-stick frying pan that we had been using. Layers had been shed and the underbelly was exposed. I had some sense that this wasn't a good thing but I wasn't sure about the details. So I went on one of my research bents to determine what we should replace it with that would meet these criteria:

worn down non-stick surface

worn down non-stick surface

1. non-stick (cooking eggs and pancakes in a pan that isn't non-stick just isn't of interest)
2. easy to clean and care for
3. not going to cause us harm, i.e. is there a healthy non-stick option?
4. reasonably priced

Here is what I discovered:

Most manufactured and readily available non-stick pans have a Teflon or Silverstone coating (brand names for a non-stick chemical polymer called PTFE for short). The production of PTFE requires the use of another perfluorochemical called perfluorooctanoic acid - PFOA's for short. This is a manmade chemical that is used in a wide array of products, and is now well-entrenched in our water and air. It remains persistent in the environment for hundreds of years so even if a ban on the use of PFOA comes into play, we will continue to be exposed to it. It is estimated that 95 - 99% of us have detectable levels in our bloodstream and there is no normal safe amount that has been established. An 8-year study of 69,000 people has linked exposure to PFOA's with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. See more on this study here.

Clearly we want to limit how much exposure we get. PTFE pans are supposed to be safe to 500ºF. Do you know how much time it takes for a pan to reach that temperature? I wouldn't know, although I might wager a guess after my experiment. (See my article on "Is olive oil safe to cook with?") Also when PTFE is scratched, the pan is vulnerable to PFOA release. Getting rid of non-stick PTFE coated fry pans, baking pans, as well non-stick inserts in units such as rice cookers would likely be a move in a healthier direction. (For a look at all the other ways we are exposed to PFOA's, go here.)

So what are the cookware alternatives?
I did not find a non-stick version of stainless steel, cast iron or glass. However there is another option which was new to me and has proven to be near-perfect. Ceramic has become the coating of choice for health conscious cooking. It is PTFE and PFOA free, emitting no harmful fumes when it reaches high heat.

After extensive searching for my ceramic pan options, I chose one that I bought from Amazon. It has become the pan of choice in our household almost all of the time. Cast iron gets a small showing for searing meat and browning mushrooms. Our stainless steel pan has been relegated to the back of the cupboard, rarely seeing the light of day. (I honestly can't think of any reason to use it, however the SS pots remain front and center).

Besides being beautiful in a green and sleek sort of way, I love how non-stick our ceramic pan is. It requires little or no oil and clean up is super easy. We learned the hard way however, that it requires attentive care. We actually damaged the first pan we had by using the abrasive side of the sponge to clean it, thinking that it wasn't that abrasive. When I emailed  the company to let them know that our non-stick pan was no longer non-stick, they replaced it without any hassle (I had not gotten the instruction sheet with the pan - I never miss stuff like that). The second pan worked beautifully until I stuck it under water to clean it while it was still hot. That ruined the coating. I'm happy to say that we've finally learned our lesson.

 

Here are '5 things you need to know to care for your green pan':

  1. Wait until the pan is cool before you wash it.
  2. Use only soapy water and a soft sponge to clean it. My suggestion is to dry it immediately to avoid it getting scratched in the dish tray.
  3. Do not use any utensils that could scratch it - wood and bamboo are recommended.
  4. Best not to store anything on top of the pan but if you do, use a  towel to cover the surface of the pan to protect it.
  5. I have read that cooking without oil may in fact preserve the pan longer as there will be no oily residue built up over time which will decrease the non-stickiness. However using soapy water has seemed to do a fine job of removing that residue.

If it is well-cared for, it looks like a ceramic pan will last a long time. We have had the third pan for about a year now and it is still performing beautifully. It is an excellent and balanced heat conductor so foods are more likely to maintain their nutritional value.

The pan I chose is Ozeri 12" Green Earth pan. There is a textured version as well as the non-textured which I chose. There are also different sizes and you can buy a set of three, as well as a wok.

References
http://www.ec.gc.ca/toxiques-toxics/Default.asp?lang=En&n=6B9B6B28-1&xml=F68CBFF1-B480-4348-903D-24DFF9D623DC
http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2009/03/pfoa-science-update
http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/index.html
http://www.ewg.org/research/pfc-dictionary