I’ll confess right off the bat that the only time I’m even vaguely content to use aluminum cookware is when I’m camping with others and they’re cooking for the group. If I’m in charge of cooking, I’d much rather use super lightweight titanium camping cookware or take a small cast-iron pan with me (I’m not kidding).
There’s no doubt that specialized camping cookware is extremely useful in that it tends to be much lighter than, say, a cast iron pot and can transfer heat quickly, meaning you need less fuel to cook food quickly. There’s a trade-off, however, because almost all lightweight camping pots and pans tend to be made with uncoated aluminum that can leach aluminum into food.
What about aluminum pots and pans that aren’t intended as camping cookware? You’ll often find these thin, light, cheap aluminum products in thrift stores and at yard sales, and for good reason; they have a propensity to collect dents and buckles that mean they don’t sit flush to a stove; and it’s far too easy to burn food to an aluminum pan, which then takes some serious elbow grease to remove.
The biggest problem with aluminum cookware, though, is that it leaches aluminum into your food, and aluminum can have serious effects on health.
How much aluminum leaches into food from cookware?
In one study, aluminum cookware released up to six times the specific release limit (SRL) of 5 mg aluminum per kilogram of food specified by the Council of Europe (R). In another study, researchers found that while cooking oil and tap water in aluminum pans didn’t cause leaching in excess of the SRL, cooking an acidic solution did (R). In fact, a dilute 0.5% citric acid solution exceeded the limit at a whopping 638 mg/L, meaning that the Tolerable Weekly Intake (TWI) of aluminum would be exceeded by 298 percent for a child weighing 15 kg (and amount to 63.8 percent of the TWI for an adult weighing 70 kg), assuming a daily uptake of 10 mL marinade containing lemon juice over a period of one week.
Shockingly, using camping dishes to prepare a fish dish with a lemon juice marinade would result in the TWI being exceeded by 871 percent for a 15 kg child and by 187 percent for a 70 kg adult (R).
It should be said that only around 0.1 percent of orally ingested aluminum is thought to be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract (R). However, aluminum exposure is already thought to be above the TWI for many adults and children (R).
Why does aluminum exposure matter?
Aluminum has no nutritional role to play in human health and has been linked to problems with the central nervous system and immune function. Aluminum appears to increase oxidative damage and deplete antioxidant enzymes including glutathione.
Over the last few decades, various studies have found links between dietary and environmental aluminum exposure and concerns over aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and multiple sclerosis (R), as well as autism spectrum disorders in genetically predisposed children (R).
A note on aluminum as an adjuvant in vaccines: small amounts of aluminum may be used in some vaccines to prompt the immune system to respond and produce antibodies to inert viruses; the benefits of being vaccinated against preventable and potentially fatal diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, tuberculosis, and so forth vastly outweigh any risk from the aluminum.
While the links between aluminum and health effects in adults and children remain in need of further study, the precautionary principle suggests it is best to take steps to reduce unnecessary exposure to aluminum. This means making sure your tap water is not contaminated with aluminum (and perhaps using a water filter) and avoiding the use of aluminum cookware, with the exception of anodized aluminum cookware.
Pros and cons of anodized aluminum cookware
Anodized aluminum cookware is a kind of aluminum cookware where the metal is bonded to oxygen to make it harder, smoother, and much nicer to cook with. Hard-anodization is an electro-chemical process where aluminum is submerged in an acid bath and subjected to electrical current. The surface of the aluminum bonds to oxygen to create a layer or aluminum oxide.
Anodized aluminum is around 30% harder than stainless steel and is largely resistant to abrasion and corrosion. The anodization process also makes the aluminum a lot less porous, meaning these pots and pans have a naturally smooth surface that makes an excellent alternative to coated non-stick cookware. Anodized aluminum pots are also much easier to clean and, unlike regular aluminum, anodized aluminum is non-reactive, meaning that it doesn’t leach heavy metals into your food.
Anodized aluminum is non-toxic and resistant to high heat. This type of cookware can have a long lifespan, but that isn’t guaranteed, and the pans can break down over time. When this happens, there’s a risk of aluminum leaching into food. Cooking acidic foods in anodized aluminum pans accelerates this breakdown.
As such, it’s best to buy anodized aluminum cookware new and take care over what you cook in it and how you clean it (avoid using acidic cleaning products such as vinegar, for example).
Despite the benefits of anodized aluminum, I prefer cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel for my pots and pans, and glass and ceramic for ovenware, thanks largely to their relative durability, which makes them inherently more eco-friendly. And, of course, top quality titanium camping cookware is the bee’s knees for cooking up a storm in the great outdoors.