When I was in college, I remember going to look at pants at my local JC Penney’s. The labels were emblazoned with the words, “stain-resistant.” As I looked at the pants, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What on earth are they putting on the pants to make them stain-resistant?” To many consumers, “stain-resistant” undoubtedly sounded cool, but it left alarm bells ringing in my head.
At the same time, nonstick cookware (such as Teflon) was sweeping kitchens across the nation. I watched family after family replace old cast iron or other cookware sets with fancy new nonstick versions, while raving about the convenience and “health benefits” of needing less fat or oil to cook effectively.
These nonstick coatings didn’t just take root in cookware and clothing. Microwave popcorn bags and other food liners, dental floss, cosmetics, carpets, household furniture and hundreds of other products are coated with or contain them.
When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) looked at cosmetics, for example, it found many troubling results. As reported by TreeHugger, EWG found Teflon “in 66 different products from 15 brands…. In total they identified 13 different PFAS chemicals [a family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] in nearly 200 products from 28 brands. Teflon was found in foundation, moisturizer, eyeshadow, bronzers and highlighters, facial powder, sunscreen, makeup, mascara, anti-aging, moisturizer, around-eye cream, blush, men’s shaving cream, brow liner, and other eye makeup.”1
Teflon is just one of the brand names that these perfluorochemicals (substances with numerous fluoride atoms) go by. Stainmaster, Scotchgard, Silverstone and many more brands clue you in to their presence. In fact, almost any product that proudly calls itself stain-resistant or nonstick may be that way because of Teflon-like chemicals.
In 2015, the government forced manufacturers to phase out one of the worst chemicals used in the manufacturing of Teflon and similar nonstick or stain-resistant products. However, this does not mean that Teflon and other nonstick substances are now safe. And unfortunately, they are still very popular, especially when it comes to cooking. Up to 70 percent of skillets and over half of all cookware sold in the U.S. are nonstick.2 Moreover, even with the phase-out of one chemical, the damage is already done. Studies show that people across America—almost one third of the entire nation—are already exposed on a daily basis to these chemicals.3
It seems that manufacturers are getting the message that consumers want new types of coatings and materials to consider in their cookware and kitchen appliances. Below, I discuss two options that are probably best to avoid, and two that show great promise in the kitchen.
STAY AWAY FROM ANODIZED ALUMINUM AND SILICONE
One of the first alternatives to Teflon-type nonstick products to come to market was aluminum-based. Aluminum is light and transfers heat rapidly, but it also cooks off right into your food!4 Although the amount of aluminum released from anodized cookware is small, the cumulative amount over many years is enough to warrant extreme caution. In addition, many anodized cookware products are also treated with additional nonstick agents, making for a possible double whammy. Perhaps there are safe brands out there that suffer from minimal leaching, but it doesn’t strike me as worth the risk of finding out the hard way that the one you purchased wasn’t a safe option. Thus, I cannot recommend any kind of aluminum cookware products, even if their light weight and quick cooking time make them “convenient”.
Silicone is another cookware option that has become popular. As Scientific American reports, “Silicone, a synthetic rubber made of bonded silicon (a natural element abundant in sand and rock) and oxygen, is increasingly filling [the] niche” of “cookware that’s easy-to-clean and doesn’t pose health concerns.”5 Scientific American states that “ The flexible yet strong material, which has proven popular in muffin pans, cupcake liners, spatulas and other utensils, can go from freezer to oven (up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit), is non-stick and stain-resistant, and unlike conventional cookware, comes in a range of bright and cheery colors.”5 Unfortunately, silicone cookware isn’t any safer for cooking than Teflon. Those “bright” and “cheery” colors and the other chemicals that get added to that base of oxygen and silicon make for a suspect final product.
As with the anodized aluminum cookware, a number of studies show that the additives in silicone cookware end up in our food,6 no matter what the manufacturers may claim. Moreover, this has been known since at least 2005. Researchers wrote at that time, “Even though silicone elastomers demonstrate a high degree of thermal stability and excellent resistance to aging, high temperatures lead to depolymerization of the elastomer, with subsequent volatilization and migration [into food] of certain substances. The few publications concerning the suitability of silicones as food contact materials have indeed shown that a certain quantity of substances migrates from silicone-based articles.”7 (I have discussed silicone cookware more thoroughly elsewhere, including where and when silicone items are best and safest to use.8)
MODERN VERSUS TRADITIONAL POLISHED CAST IRON
Many health-conscious consumers have moved to cast iron for an almost nonstick cooking experience, sans dangerous chemical additives. However, even if you find cast iron to your liking, it covers only a limited range of kitchen needs. What about waffle irons and other such gadgets? Other limitations and drawbacks of cast iron include the need to preheat skillets properly to ensure that food doesn’t stick, and the importance of protecting and maintaining the cured finish to maintain the somewhat nonstick surface. Also, cast iron is awfully heavy, and older people or those with injuries may have a hard time handling it.
Most people associate cast iron with a rough, uneven surface. This “roughness” is what makes cast iron more complicated to cook with—foods tend to stick unless the pan is properly seasoned, preheated and then managed well while cooking. However, if you have ever found an old cast iron skillet that had a surface somewhat smooth like glass, you may have stumbled upon a traditional polished piece of cast iron! Traditional cast iron (brands like Wagner and Griswold) didn’t require nearly as much cooking care, because the rough surface was smoothed out through careful sanding and polishing.
Why did this process go away? Cost. As labor and other costs skyrocketed in the mid-1900s, manufacturers moved to less costly production models to keep cast iron affordable and competitive with other cookware options. Manufacturers replaced all the labor-intensive finishing work with additional seasoning (usually with oils from the booming edible oil industry). However, it turned out to be a lose-lose solution because cast iron became less consumer-friendly and quickly fell out of favor.
Thankfully, polished cast iron is making a comeback. It is not only easier to cook with but also is lighter and requires less maintenance. Polished cast iron is probably the best thing to happen to cast iron and also possibly your kitchen. Although polished cast iron still needs some of the same care as rough—it still requires seasoning and doesn’t respond well to hot, soapy water—it is far friendlier and more nonstick than typical cast iron. In addition, the pieces are often quite beautiful, as the polishing process creates a finish that is more than appropriate to go straight from stovetop to supper table. Unlike stainless steel and ceramic options, polished cast iron will last many lifetimes under good care.
At the moment, the biggest drawback of polished cast iron is the price. Polished pieces go for a pretty penny, about three to eight times the cost of their standard cast iron counterparts. For the ambitious among us, you can polish your own—just realize that it is a time-intensive endeavor. You can find a number of guides and tutorials online if you feel inclined to try. Make sure you follow all the safety precautions; proper eye and breathing protection is a must!
Other companies are starting to jump into the cast iron market, often trying to distinguish themselves through lighter cast iron cookware. Yet the weight of cast iron is integral to why it cooks so well, so it is important to realize that lighter pieces will cook more like standard stainless steel or other cookware and won’t have the heat retention that makes cast iron the clear go-to for so many applications in the kitchen. If you are looking for a brand that has found the sweet spot between weight and performance, Field has garnered good reviews and has done extensive testing to ensure that their pieces perform well, even with a much lower weight.
When I needed dental implants, at first I thought my only choice was metal-based implants, but then my dental surgeon pointed me in the direction of zirconium oxide—a ceramic. Ceramics are an interesting class of material. They are nonreactive, incredibly durable and highly versatile.
Many foodies already have experience cooking with ceramics, using enamel-coated cast iron such as Le Creuset and Lodge. Enamel-coated cast iron is lovely, having many of the advantages of regular cast iron without some of the drawbacks. Except weight—enamel-coated cast iron is as heavy or heavier than regular cast iron! In our experience, it is also prone to chipping, especially in a large family with lots of kids involved with the process of making meals and cleaning up.
However, it seems that the idea of coating a base material with a nonstick ceramic is taking off as a cookware option. Ceramic cookware is one of the fastest growing segments of the cookware industry. Because it is still very new, quality, durability and purity are considerations and concerns. Similar to enamel-coated cast iron, you should stick with wooden utensils and wash the cookware by hand to preserve and protect the ceramic coating (unless the set you purchase clearly states that you can treat it otherwise).
Different companies have their own proprietary formulations and production methods, so you cannot assume that all ceramics are created equal or are equally safe.9 For almost four decades, in fact, researchers have shown that impurities in ceramic cookware can make it into the food cooked in them, especially if the food is acidic.10 Heavy metals such as lead and cadmium are the potential impurities of greatest concern. In this regard, country of origin may matter. One researcher purchased a large amount of ceramic cookware from his local Chinatown and found troubling results after testing the pieces for heavy metal leaching, with 25 percent returning positive results for lead.11 The researchers noted that “three plates and two spoons were found to be leaching lead in quantities that significantly exceeded the levels permitted by FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. Specifically, one of the ceramic plates tested leached lead at 145 parts per million, a rate far beyond the limit of 2 parts per million imposed by FDA.”11
Products coming from Asia or Latin America are more likely to suffer from heavy metal contamination than American or European options. Stick with reputable companies that publish the results of independent testing of their products. Don’t purchase off-brand or other unknown cookware—it may be low-cost initially, but you could end up paying a high price in the long run.
WAFFLE-MAKERS, GRILLS AND MORE
Last winter, we decided to try to find a waffle iron made from safe materials. Lo and behold, there are now ceramic options. After almost a year of use, we are still very impressed with our ceramic waffle iron’s performance. Several companies also offer cast iron waffle makers, but I currently can’t recommend them; a number of our friends have tried them and report generally poor results.
In the summer, outdoor cooking has many advantages. My wife especially likes the fact that it results in the boys and me taking care of even more of the cooking than normal! Unfortunately, grill grates are one of the most commonly Teflon-coated cooking surfaces. Thankfully, many mid-range grills now offer cast iron cooking grates instead, and some ceramic options are becoming available as well. Expect to pay an extra fifty to one hundred dollars—but given that a properly cared-for grill can last a decade, the small up-front difference in cost is more than worth the many benefits of a better grilling surface. (If you want your grill to last, make sure to also purchase a grill cover of some kind, and properly store your grill when not in use.)
Ultimately, consumers can take heart from the fact that so many alternatives to nonstick and other low-quality coatings and finishes are now available.
WEIGHING IN ON MODERN CAST IRON BRANDS AND CARE
LODGE: We have many pieces of Lodge cast iron. They are the standard, go-to cast iron cookware, offering especially
good quality for the price. They are sometimes a bit difficult to cook with and very heavy (a ten-inch skillet weighs about five pounds).
BAREBONES: Barebones is a newer, modern cast iron company. I haven’t been able to get my hands on their items yet, but the website says a ten-inch skillet weighs in at a whopping seven pounds! Hopefully, this is just the shipping weight, and the actual skillet comes in at a similar weight to Lodge’s. Although Barebones items appear to be very similar to Lodge, they have one advantage—they are seasoned using organic oils.
FIELD: Field is a new entrant into the world of cast iron, trying to bring back polished cast iron at an affordable price.
Their #8 (equivalent to a ten-inch skillet) weighs just a bit over four pounds, similar to traditional or antique cast iron. It handles and cooks even better than our antique piece and, as the company promises, the weight reduction in no way reduces the performance we expect from cast iron. We have found that eggs of all kinds are a breeze to make, leaving no residue, and the skillet cleans up with exceptional ease. Visually, it is absolutely gorgeous. If you can afford it, Field’s pieces are well worth the additional price.
TRADITIONAL AND ANTIQUE PIECES: We happen to have a classic, many-decades-old cast iron skillet that a friend
gave us (brand unknown). Even though it is quite old, its surface still shows the care that went into making cast iron in the early 1900s. It is somewhat lighter than our ten-inch Lodge skillet, weighing in at four pounds. It takes less time to heat up and is easier to keep clean. Such pieces are a reminder that if you care for your cast iron, one day your children’s children may well enjoy using the same pieces that went into preparing meals for their mom or dad!
PROPER CARE: For those who struggle with cast iron, here are a few care tips. First, start warming up cast iron skillets a few minutes before cooking under medium-low heat. The bigger or heavier the skillet, the longer this process can take. Second, get a chain link cast iron scrubber. These make clean-up so much easier. Also remember that cast iron is best cleaned with warm water and abrasion, rather than hot water and soap. Try to avoid using hot water and soap on your cast iron, as it reduces or removes the protective coating. Third, keep it properly seasoned—lard is best for this.
BETTER COOKING SPRAYS ARE ON THE WAY
Cans of cooking spray have been a staple for many modern cooks seeking to keep their cooking forays stick-free. For years, the only option was low-quality (in)edible oils like corn, canola and other processed oil mixtures. Usually, these also came with a heaping dose of sketchy propellants and other chemicals such as dimethyl silicone or “butter flavoring.“
A number of companies (such as Chosen Foods) now offer olive, avocado and similar organic, traditional fat and oil blends for when you need a cooking spray option. Best of all, many of these new sprays use no propellants at all. Plain old air pressure and improvements in design have made propellant-free applicators possible. So if you need a cooking oil spray on occasion, go with one of these great new options now on the market.
1. Breyer M. Is there Teflon in your cosmetics? TreeHugger, March 14, 2018. https://www.treehugger.com/organic-beauty/there-teflon-your-cosmetics.html.
2. Crowley H. Everything you need to know about nonstick skillets. Cook’s Illustrated, Nov. 10, 2017. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/articles/591-everything-you-need-to-know-about-nonstick-skillets.
3. Easter S. America’s next water contamination crisis may already be here. Vice, Oct. 31, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/5987xn/americas-next-water-contamination-crisis-may-already-be-here?fbclid=IwAR2QHnsRiTrHK4mGCpV_Y2-aK84AB3hGrRCnvOhZGz7c_2RZc7v8bRxrY8.
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5. EarthTalk. Silicone tally: how hazardous is the new post-Teflon rubberized cookware. Scientific American, n.d. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talk-silicone-tally/.
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7. Meuwly R, Brunner K, Fragnière C, Sager F, Dudler V. Heat stability and migration from silicone baking moulds. Mitt Lebensm Hyg 2005;96:281-297.
8. Moody J. Silicone molds for baking: when to use, when to lose. The Healthy Home Economist, May 24, 2018. https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/silicone-molds-baking-safety/.
9. Wells K. Are glazed ceramic pans safe? Wellness Mama, June 23, 2017. https://wellnessmama.com/13203/glazed-ceramic-pans-safe/.
10. Gould JH, Butler SW, Boyer KW, Steele EA. Hot leaching of ceramic and enameled cookware: collaborative study. J Assoc Off Anal Chem 1983;66(3):610-619.
11. Mitchell C. Beware of lead in ceramic kitchenware. Food Safety News, Apr. 7, 2011. https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2011/04/several-months-ago-gerald-omalley/#.VoX7i0-eYRk.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2018