Imagine: It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, you enjoy a sunny bike ride to the farmers market, stock up on fresh, organic, locally grown produce, and head home to cook up a storm… in pans coated in toxic chemicals. That’s right, even if you buy mainly organic produce and eat a healthy wholefood diet, chances are that you’re still using problematic pots, pans, and other cookware. I know I was, up until recently when I really looked at the science of cookware and why safe, green cookware matters.
If, like me, you’re of a certain age where you’ve stopped moving house, city, or country every few years or even months and are happily investing in quality cookware to last you a lifetime, this is the blog series for you. The same goes if you’re buying cookware for the first time or simply replacing older and broken items.
Most people own at least one piece of Teflon or other problematic non-stick cookware, which can have serious effects on the health of you and your family, including non-human family members. Toxic non-stick pots and pans aren’t the only things to watch out for, though, if you’re a health-conscious and eco-conscious consumer.
In this series of articles, I’ll look at the problems with non-stick cookware and dig into whether newer, ‘green’ non-stick cookware is really safe and eco-friendly. I’ll also discuss the pros and cons of common cookware materials, including:
I’ll also look at potential safety issues with artisanal cookware you might be tempted to buy from your farmers market or while on vacation. And, finally, I’ll look at what to do with your old cookware and whether ‘green’ cookware really is as eco-friendly as manufacturers claim.
If you just need a new skillet and want to know my top recommendations for safe, green, cookware, you can skip right to the product reviews. I promise I won’t mind.
But, if you want to know how to spot non-toxic, eco-friendly cookware, it’s worth knowing which green certifications matter for cookware; I’ll look at these briefly below. First, though, here are four key questions to get you thinking:
- What is the cookware made from?
- Are the materials recycled and/or recyclable?
- Is the cookware treated with chemicals known to be toxic?
- Does the manufacturing and/or use of the cookware harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
What’s the alternative? Non-toxic cookware
Inexpensive, safe, non-toxic cookware is readily available, if you know what to look for. In general, cookware made from the following materials is a better option than non-stick or aluminum pots and pans:
- Cast iron (with caveats)
- Anodized aluminum
- Ceramic (watch out for coatings)
- Stainless steel (with caveats)
- Silicone cookware
- Porcelain enamel
- Carbon steel
Replacing all of your problematic cookware with eco-conscious, safe, non-toxic products can be a costly and time-consuming process. I know this all too well from my own experience stocking a new kitchen several times over after moving a lot in my twenties. Finding cookware that you love and that doesn’t release toxic fumes or contaminate your food with heavy metals is not an easy task. It’s certainly not something most people can do overnight, so it’s good to figure out your priorities and strategize accordingly.
When I emigrated to Canada, I gave away almost all of my cherished cookware because it was simply too heavy to justify shipping across the ocean. Starting again from scratch, on a freelance writer’s income and with no guarantee of permanent residency and citizenship, also made it hard to justify investing in top quality cookware. Thrift store and yard sale finds got me through that first year or so, but once I felt more settled, those scratched up pans with warped bottoms started to look less like a yard sale bargain and more like a real health hazard.
This is the approach I took to detoxifying my cookware collection:
- Make an inventory of your current cookware items
- Prioritize those you use most frequently
- Aim to replace one item every month or when finances allow
- Watch out for sales, yard-sale finds, or hand-me-downs from friends and family
By checking items off your list throughout the year, you’ll soon have a much healthier, happier kitchen.
And, if you can’t replace all your non-stick Teflon cookware right away, you can minimize your risk of exposure to toxic fumes by following these basic principles:
- Always cook in a well-ventilated area
- Never use non-stick Teflon cookware in the oven
- Keep pots and pans on a low to moderate heat (read manufacturers’ instructions)
- Only heat pots and pans for a short amount of time
- Never heat a non-stick PTFE pan without food or oil in it (an empty pan releases more fumes)
- Prioritize replacement of pots and pans that are scratched and no longer truly non-stick
Other considerations for the eco-conscious consumer
As well as your own personal health, and the health of human and non-human family members, there are other reasons to choose green or eco-conscious cookware as well.
By not buying Teflon-coated cookware and cookware involving the use of other unpleasant chemicals, you also help protect workers who would otherwise be producing those goods. Occupational exposure has been linked to silicosis, a preventable lung condition that can be fatal and for which there is no effective treatment. People with silicosis may experience shortness of breath, dizziness, cough, weight loss, and fever, and even lung failure (R).
Green cookware certifications
Certifications for pots and pans are few and far between, and there is no clear consensus on green certifications for cookware. In general, choosing eco-friendly cookware means checking the basic components of the product (steel, carbon steel, cast-iron, etc.); checking the coating, if any; and considering how you’ll be using the product and its expected lifespan with such use.
Some companies are certified as conforming to international regular food contact standards set by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the German LFGB, or standards laid out by the Swiss government or the KTR (authoritative test institute certified by Korea Laboratory Accreditation). One of the cookware brands I recommend, Xtrema®, is certified to meet California Prop 65 standards, meaning that it is certified free from over 800 problematic compounds.
Some companies, such as Green Gourmet, state the percentage of recycled materials in their cookware and guarantee that their products are free from Teflon, PTFEs, or other undesirable coatings. This kind of labelling is extremely helpful and very welcome but watch out for sneaky marketing tactics from other companies.
For instance, some products listed as ‘Teflon-free’ still contain PTFEs. The Ozeri Stone Earth Frying Pan range and similar products are a good example of this. The company claims these are Teflon-free and make a big show of being PFOA-free, but they still make use of PTFE non-stick coatings. It takes a bit of digging to find this out, and it’s still not clear what the PTFE coating is made with; the marketing says, ‘an inert coating inspired by nature’, which isn’t terribly helpful. So, while such products may be as good as the manufacturers’ claims, there’s still a chance that they will release undesirable fumes if heated above the recommended temperature.
In general, the more information a manufacturer offers about their cookware, and the longer the warranty available, the more likely it is that this is a higher quality product. Beware cheap cookware that has no warranty and no clear product details listing its composition. If in doubt, contact the company.
Companies to consider for conscientious cookware
As a general rule, your best options for conscientious cookware are carbon steel and cast iron, paired with ceramic (uncoated) or porcelain enamel cookware for cooking more acidic foods. Glass cookware is excellent for baking, as is carbon steel and cast iron (especially for crispier roasting and baking needs).
Some of the best brands to look out for are:
Corning Ware (classic)
Non-stick, non-toxic cookware
- Cuisinarts Ceramica
You can also find our top picks for non-toxic, non-stick pans here.
You’ll find individual product reviews and comparisons on Leaf Score for many of those brands listed above. Once my bank balance recovers from my last trip to Gourmet Warehouse, I’ll add more safe, non-toxic, eco-friendly cookware recommendations to the list.