The chemical PFOA (perflourooctanoic acid) is a chemical found in Teflon and other non-stick pans is found in 95% of our bloodstreams and it binds to tissues indefinitely and is considered a likely human carcinogen. Although health officials insist that chemical exposure through cookware is minimal at best, Health Canada does recognize that “non-stick coatings are a risk if they are heated to temperatures greater than 350 degrees Celsius or 650 degrees Fahrenheit.” Surely my pot or pan on the stove doesn’t get that hot, does it? A study conducted in 2003 by the Environmental Working Group showed that a pan placed on a burner on the highest setting (like when you’re trying to boil water fast) heated up to about 720 degrees Fahrenheit in just five minutes.
PFOA is also found on the inside of hamburger wrappers, popcorn bags, french fry cartons and candy packaging to prevent grease buildup on the paper products. Because the chemical rubs off on the foods in these wrapping we ingest larger amounts of PFOA than we might inhale from cookware. Companies like Burger King, McDonalds, Frito-Lay, Kelloggs and Kraft either don’t use or have phased out the use of PFOA in their packaging. The bad news is that the chemicals used now to replace PFOA are not proving to be any safer. Not yet, anyway.
So what’s an eco-conscious cook supposed to do? Like we always do: look for alternatives.
Stainless Steel – This can be a little sticky, so a cooking spray is often needed. Don’t reach for the PAM, though. Those aerosol sprays are awful. There are a variety of manual pump spray containers for oils ranging from the cheap variety to more fancy, expensive ones. My $10 one from Bed, Bath and Beyond works just fine and has for years. Starfrit has a line of stainless steel cookware called Quicklean that has microscopic peaks and valleys that help with the stick factor, but if you don’t maintain this well it won’t last long.
Cast Iron – Yes, these pans are ridiculously heavy but they work and work well. If you season the cast iron pan somewhat regularly and let it dry quickly and completely (a minute or two on the stove after you clean it will help keep rust at bay) you can enjoy a non-stick pan without the hassle of leeching chemicals.
Ceramic Coated Cookware – These pans are often marketed as green cookware as they offer the slippery non-stick surface without the chemical side-dish. Cuisinart has a line called Green Gourmet that’s a little on the expensive side of things. Starfrit has released their budget conscious alternatives in their Eco Chef and Alternatives line. The only real downside to these pans is that once the coating has chipped you’ll be kind of stuck (literally). As with so many things, you get what you pay for and the more expensive lines are usually more durable.
Glass Cookware – I have yet to see a glass frying pan that I wouldn’t be scared to use. I also hear that it sticks far worse than any stainless steel pan on the market. Glass has its place in the kitchen, but I’m not sure that it’s here.
Titanium Cookware – These products will cost you a crazy amount of money but they are the best when it comes to non-stick surfaces. However, when it comes to heat conduction they are at the bottom of the pack. Often the titanium will be a coating on stainless steel either in isolation or with a copper base. Also, it is common to see teflon coatings on top of the titanium. Buyer beware.