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Are Toxins Hiding in Your Pots and Pans?

Some cookware is safer than others. Find out why

spinner image An old used frying pan showing scratches and cooking stains, isolated on white background with clipping path
Anthony Boulton / Getty Images

Open just about anyone's kitchen cabinets and you'll find a jumble of cookware ranging from nonstick to ceramic to stainless steel.

But medical experts say that what you cook on can impact more than just whether your food gets crisp or burned. Some materials in frying pans, pots and baking dishes have the potential to expose you and your family to toxins.

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Unhealthy fumes or metal leaching into food over time may cause damage to organs, says Elizabeth Bradley, M.D., medical director for Functional Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.

"There are certain toxins that are in cookware that could actually make us sick, or potentially long term create an environment within our body that maybe is difficult to detoxify,” Bradley explains.

And while some of these chemicals may not leach into food at levels high enough to cause standalone harm, Bradley notes that it's the accumulation of toxins that can lead to concern. “You're getting some of it through, let's say Teflon [a nonstick coating], but you're also getting it through many other things like cosmetics” or microwave popcorn, she explains, adding that she works to help her patients decrease their “total amount of toxins.”

The good news is that many of these toxins can be avoided by using best practices and making a few swaps. Use this guide to prioritize healthier cookware.

Materials to be aware of

Aluminum: Home cooks often opt for disposable pans, and muffin and bread tins. But these single-use options may increase the risk of aluminum exposure, as it might leach from the foil or cookware into food, says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., who is on the Board of Directors for the American Nutrition Association and a faculty member at the Institute for Functional Medicine and the University of Western States. One study found that baking meat in aluminum foil increased the aluminum concentration of red and white meats by as much as 378 percent.

While the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives notes “there are no evident risks to the health of the consumer from using aluminum foil to cook meats,” the organization does recognize that eating meals prepared in foil, in conjunction with exposure to additional sources of aluminum, may carry a health risk.

Teflon: Some nonstick pans are sealed with a Teflon coating that can contain PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene), which can create toxic fumes when heated. These toxic fumes may cause what is known as “polymer fume fever.” Symptoms include breathing difficulty, fever and sore throat. “When [Teflon is] heated at high temperatures, the fumes that come out actually can make people sick,” Bradley says.

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DuPont, a major manufacturer behind Teflon, phased out PFOAs in 2013, but you might want to swap out any nonstick pans that have been sitting in your cupboard for eight years or more.

Pots and pans to discard

To cut down on toxin exposure, do your best to empty cupboards of cookware that contains materials mentioned above. But you don't have to toss all your pans at once.

Choose your one or two most-used nonstick pans and replace those first with a safer option, says Tonya Harris, an award-winning environmental toxin expert and the author of the upcoming book The Slightly Greener Method. Start by taking inventory of what you have and consider replacing these items:

Chipped or scratched pans: When pans get nicked or scratched, the surface coating is compromised, making it easier for potential toxins to leach into your food, Bradley says. “If a pan has the Teflon coating, and you use a metal utensil on it or knife, the minute you cut into it, you're actually exposing more,” Bradley says. And stainless steel pans that are badly scratched can potentially expose you to chromium and nickel, which in higher amounts may cause health issues like dermatitis, especially in those with nickel sensitivity.

Older cookware: Some old or badly burned stainless steel pans may allow chemicals to seep into food as well. And if you're scouring yard sales or second-hand stores for pans that are nonstick, beware that they may contain Teflon. In general, it's best to opt for newer cookware when replacing a pan.

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Go Beyond Pots and Pans

When seeking out safe cooking practices, here are a few other tips to keep in mind.

1. Be mindful of utensils
Some spatulas and stirring spoons can also contain toxins. Plastic utensils may contain Bisphenol-A (BPA) and other hormone disruptors, which can leach into your food when cooking. And just because something is BPA free, doesn't mean it's safer.

"BPA is Bisphenol-A and a lot of times when it's removed, they'll replace it with Bisphenol-S (BPS) or F (BPF), which may have just as strong, if not higher, endocrine disrupting or hormone disrupting properties as BPA,” says Tonya Harris, an environmental toxins expert.

Be aware that metal utensils can scratch up your pans, potentially creating more opportunities for chemicals to trickle into your food. “I personally use wooden utensils for cooking,” says Steven Gundry, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon and author of The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age. Harris says silicon can be a good option if you use high quality, food-grade versions.

2. Turn on the fan
Since cooking with chemical-laden nonstick pans can create harmful fumes, it's a good idea to turn the exhaust fan on when cooking. The fan can also help dissipate any smoke or gas from cooking on high heat.

3. Use parchment paper
If you can't find a nontoxic baking sheet, or aren't sure if yours contains harmful chemicals, Bradley suggests lining it with parchment paper before putting food on top. “That's going to minimize the actual absorption of the chemicals,” she says.

4. Avoid takeout containers 
Experts like Gundry warn that takeout containers made from foam or plastic often contain endocrine disrupters. Even paper cartons may have a plasticized lining containing some toxins, he says.

"When in doubt, and you have to have take out, bring your own glass containers from home and transfer [the food] immediately.”

5. Don't microwave food in plastic
This is a definite no-no, says Elizabeth Bradley, M.D., medical director for Functional Medicine at Cleveland Clinic.

Nonstick pans that aren't labeled PTFE- and PFOA-free: If a nonstick pan is made with the newer PTFE- and PFOA-free green materials, those are potentially better. A pan that just says “nonstick” and doesn't give any kind of description? That's likely one you don't want.

Safer options

Ceramic cookware: This has become increasingly popular as a safer cooking option and Bradley recommends this material to her patients. Alternatively, some cookware brands are nonstick, but made with Teflon-free coatings.

But it's important to note that the research on these newer materials is new too, Minich says.

"Many manufacturers have turned to other substances to create their nonstick cookware, but it is unknown whether some of these substitutions are actually safer than PFOA,” Minich says. “We will just have to wait for more research before determining if they truly are safe."

Cast iron: Generally considered one of the safer metals for cookware. “Although the iron may leach into food, it is generally at small amounts,” explains Minich. If, however, you have a condition called hemochromatosis (also known as iron overload), “that's a situation where you wouldn't want to cook in a cast iron pan,” Bradley says.

Stainless steel: Another generally safe option. But experts note that you should ideally refrain from cooking acidic foods, like tomato sauce, in these types of pans. “Stainless steel may have some heavy metals in it, such as nickel and chromium, that can leach, especially when cooking acidic foods,” Minich explains. Just make sure to look for a high-quality steel pan and avoid scratching the pan to cut down on risk. Josh Axe, doctor of chiropractic, certified doctor of natural medicine and clinical nutritionist, recommends purchasing a food-grade version of stainless steel pots and pans.

Glass: Bradley is a fan of using oven-safe glass containers to cook things like chicken or bake brownies. When it comes to cooking materials, “glass is one of the better, if not the best,” she says. Read the label and make sure you choose lead-free glass.

Keep in mind, there is “no perfect cookware,” Harris notes. And one way to minimize the risk of exposure to any of the above is to rotate what you cook with. “Have a couple of different types so you're not using the same pan with the same exposure (such as to nickel or iron) and alternate cooking with them,” she suggests.

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