Healthiest Cookware Materials (+Buying Guide)

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I think that saying 2020 has been an “interesting year” might be the biggest understatement of the last decade. This year has arisen new concerns about what’s really healthy, and has made us look even deeper into our homes during the long weeks of isolation; so what happened?

Lots of people (including me) started to spend more and more time in the kitchen, either experimenting with new recipes that “I never had the time to do before” or deep cleansing to achieve some sort of sense of accomplishment. But more importantly, we started to worry about our own health and of our loved ones’.

So one day, in the middle of a mild hypochondriac attack I looked at my cookware and asked myself: “Is this affecting my health? How?”

But what defines the “healthiness” of cookware? You could argue that the fact that it doesn’t release any toxic or harmful materials into the food or the air is on top of the list.

Perhaps it’s fundamental for you that the manufacturing or the disposal of the cookware are eco-friendly.

Or that you don’t request huge amounts of oils to prevent the food from sticking, which could result in an increment of cholesterol levels in the blood.

Or even that is easy to clean so it doesn’t retain residues that might harvest bacteria. And all of those concerns are equally important!

So I deep dived into the sea of information available online and came up with some very interesting (at least for me) input. Let’s get into it.

Some metals occur naturally in our bodies, such as iron, zinc, and copper, which are important to the correct functioning of the brain, they intervene in processes like the production of energy, and the creation and management of important molecules.

Nonetheless, since the 50s there have been some concerns about the effects of these metals on human health, especially because of the rise in cases of neurological disorders like autism, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Most of these concerns have since been dissipated, as was the case with vaccines, and others have resulted in safe codes and legislation such as the ban on the use of lead in gasoline and house paint, but other debates keep rising and subsiding as new studies are made, releasing new and diverse hypotheses. 

So, what about cookware? Let me break it down:

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Healthiest Cookware Materials

Aluminum

Known for being lightweight and inexpensive, which in its own merit could be deemed as healthy for the pocket!

But in all seriousness, uncoated aluminum cookware has the nasty habit of leaching into the food, especially preparing acidic dishes.

Some claim that excessive aluminum consumption may be linked to several neurological conditions, but there isn’t enough evidence to definitely prove or disprove those claims even after a myriad of studies. You can read a bit more about how Aluminum and other heavy metals affect the human brain

As well, uncoated aluminum doesn’t really have many non-stick properties, meaning you’ll have to use some kind of lubricant to prevent food from fusing with your cookware.

On the other hand, the heat-conducting properties of this metal are legendary, so you won’t have to worry about waiting an eternity for the pan to heat up or uneven cooking that could lead to burned or raw spots in your food.

However, Hard-Anodized Aluminum is one of the sturdiest kinds of cookware present in today’s market. Introduced for the first time on an industrial scale, Anodizing was first used to protect seaplanes’ parts from corrosion and is still widely used in the electronics and aerospace industries. 

This is a genuinely fascinating process, but being honest science was never my strongest subject, so I’ll leave you with this explanation from ManufacturingNetwork.com: “Anodising is the process of submerging the metal in an acidic solution, and applying a voltage to promote the absorption of oxygen into the surface.

In the case of anodizing aluminum, this causes the formation of the hard ceramic compound, Aluminium Oxide” and you can read more about it here.

The resulting coating on the material is incredibly resistant to both heat and scratches, making it perfect to manufacture cookware. However, it is still slightly porous, so it is recommended to use a bit of cold oil on the preheated pan to make it completely non-stick, although sometimes a layer of PTFE is used on this cookware to make it completely non-stick, we’ll get there.

“But is it healthy?” you might still ask, and the truth is: “No one is 100% sure yet”. First introduced in 1986 by Meyer, is one of the newest kinds of cookware so there aren’t that many studies. What we do know is that this process makes it almost impossible for the cookware to leach aluminum into your food, even if the coating gets damaged (a difficult feat in and of itself). So rest assured that Anodized Aluminum is one of the safest options currently in the culinary market (that we know of).


Non-stick (Teflon): 

Oh, this infamous product! When all of the studies about how the PFOA, PTFE, PFOS, and GenX are linked to higher risks of developing cancer came out, my mom absolutely lost it and “cleansed our kitchen from all risks”.

Of course, later on, when I started living on my own, was broke, and was beginning to realize that you can’t live forever just eating frozen pizzas, I went straight for a cheap non-stick pan even against my mother’s recommendations.

Then I started asking questions and realized that lots of people didn’t know exactly what was “so wrong” about Teflon non-stick pans. At last, I managed to wrap my head around the whole subject and so I bring it to you.

It all started when in 1938 the scientist Roy Plunkett, as part of a research team at DuPont, discovered by accident a substance they named Polytetrafluoroethylene (nope, I won’t even try to read that out loud), better known as PTFE. Later on, in 1945 to be specific, DuPont trademarked the substance as Teflon. But it wasn’t until 1954 that a French couple (Marc and Collette Grégoire) had the great idea of covering a pan with the substance, creating the first-ever Non-stick pan which they commercialized as Tefal. You can read more about Teflon’s story here.

But continuing with the PTFE, since its creation, several parties have performed experiments, confirming the compound’s toxicity as early as the ’70s. There’s a great research article made by The Intercept that I’ll leave over here for you to read: https://theintercept.com/2018/07/31/3m-pfas-minnesota-pfoa-pfos/ 

3M and DuPont keep on insisting that their products are safe as long as people use them according to the given recommendations, including not heating the material over 660 degrees °F (340 degrees °C), when it will start decomposing and releasing toxic fumes, but that these temperatures are “far above those of normal household cooking”.

However, in-depth research made by EWG in 2003, they observed that “a non-stick pan could reach temperatures of 721°F in just five minutes over a conventional, electric stove-top burner”.

Another fundamental beacon of mistrust in the matter of the healthiness of non-stick cookware is Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8, which is part of the components that formulate PTFE.

According to the American Cancer Society, “PFOA has the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time.

Studies have found that it is present worldwide at very low levels in just about everyone’s blood.” As well, they warn about “Studies in lab animals have found exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands (breasts), and pancreas”. And of course, here you have the article.

In 2009, DuPont released a substitute for the PFOA called GenX, but studies done ever since the announcement of this new substance have concluded that it is as contaminant and health-damaging as the original product. I won’t go into many details, because The Intercept released a complete series about this and it is here

Cast Iron 

Spoiler: my favorite option

I take climate change seriously. I know that every time we have to change our cookware because of scratches, the coating is peeling off, it broke mid pancake flip leaving you with the handle on one hand and a mess of raw batter on the walls (yes, that happened), or whichever other reason, our carbon footprint increases tremendously.

That doesn’t happen with Cast Iron cookware, though. My grandmother still has an old cast iron pan, a wedding gift, that works like a dream! Nothing burns, nothing sticks, but she doesn’t let anyone use it, “You’ll mess up my seasoning,” she says.

And she’s absolutely right, the magic of cast iron lays on the seasoning! It doesn’t only provide the cookware with non-stick properties but also prevents it from rusting and it only gets better with time, meaning that the more you cook with it, the better it gets.

It is so crucial that several brands carrying cast iron cookware have started to sell pre-seasoned pieces. But if you want to season your own pan (always recommended), I’ll leave you a thorough guide by Lodge

This material can last for generations given that you take proper care of it, and even though iron mining has a negative effect on the environment (as all mining does), iron is a recyclable material with a long lifespan.

Now, as with other cookware, Cast Iron also has a problem of leaching onto the food, especially when cooking acidic foods for a long period of time (Bolognese sauce, anyone?), but for most people, a slight increment of iron in their diet is a good thing (it works wonders with my mild anemia, for example).

However, as told by Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., this increment of iron in the food can be detrimental for people suffering from Hemochromatosis (an inherited metabolic disorder).


Stainless steel

Another favorite of those looking for sustainable and durable cookware. Stainless steel is a sturdy material, resistant to high temperatures, scratches, bumps, rust, amateur cooks, almost anything!

As well, it has the advantage that is a 100% recyclable material that won’t leach metals or toxins into your food (which is always appreciated) and is usually easy to clean as most of this cookware is dishwasher friendly.

But as with most things in life, not everything is perfect. The main problem users find with Stainless Steel cookware is that its heat-conducting properties are not the best, but manufacturers have solved the issue by giving the pots and pans either aluminum or copper cores, providing even and quick heating. And I won’t even touch on the fact that you’d definitely need some sort of lubricant to prevent food from sticking because it doesn’t have the greatest non-stick properties.

Also, I think most of us will agree that the pricing of good quality stainless steel cookware is a bit up there, but as my mother wisely says: “if it’s going to last you a long time, it’s not an expense but an investment”. And these pans can withstand several lifetimes.

Here is my article about the best stainless steel cookware sets.


Copper

One of the favorite cookware materials of chefs and foodies all over the world. They are the luxury sports car of culinary.

I mean, they don’t only look absolutely stunning hanging from any kitchen wrack, but are also greatly appreciated because of its heat-conducting properties, making them ideal for delicate sauces and searings, and exactly as luxury cars, they’re expensive (heartbreakingly expensive).

Yes, copper is a highly reactive metal when in contact with acids, but it’s almost impossible to find unlined copper cookware. Traditionally, they were lined with tin, a nonreactive metal with great heat conductivity and surprising non-stick properties, but fell out of fashion recently due to its low melting point of around 450°F (230°C), which any pan can reach just preheating. Now they’re lined mostly with stainless steel in super-thin layers so it doesn’t counteract the copper’s conductivity.

I loved this article by serious eat where they explain all of copper’s benefits and disadvantages from a professional chef’s point of view, a great read.


Ceramic

Let’s just clarify something straight away, it’s not the same to talk about “100% ceramic cookware” and “Ceramic Coated Cookware”.

The former refers to pieces made of clay or finely milled minerals, which are then baked and glazed. It’s not really meant for cooking on a stove-top, but it excels with oven cooking, making it great bakeware.

On the other hand, the latter (ceramic coated cookware) refers to a metal pan (usually made of aluminum or steel) that is coated with a substance called Sol-gel, produced with inorganic minerals that are spread over the metal and baked to create a coating.

But how is it non-stick without relying on PTFE, you may be asking? Well, when it heats up it releases a patina of silicon oil that prevents food from sticking, as simple as that. You can read a bit more about the differences between these two materials here.

This product was created in response to the PTFE panic, marketed around the feature of having a non-stick coating with none of the “harmful and toxic materials” (AKA: PTFE and PFOA), has been around since 2008 -just a little before 2013 outlawing of PFOA.

But there’s no such thing as perfect, so what’s the issue with this replacement of Teflon? A couple. First of all, the durability isn’t great; even if you treat the material as your firstborn it won’t last more than a couple of years (which sucks). Also, as the Sol-gel releases its oils, the non-stick properties diminish and the heat distribution starts failing. But most importantly, since it’s a relatively new material there aren’t many studies done about its safety.

Here is my list of the best ceramic cookware sets


Porcelain enamel

This material is deeply connected with ceramic, but as it’s explained in Hunker.com, all porcelain is ceramic, but not all ceramic is porcelain. https://www.hunker.com/13408561/what-is-porcelain-enamel-cookware 

Consists of a metal base with a coating of porcelain, creating a slick layer that is, for the most part, non-stick. Most of the time, it comes in a variety of bright colors not prone to fading and has a wide variety of uses being able to go from stove-top to oven without any problem.

Some other of the many advantages of this material is that it doesn’t react with acidic food (or any other kinds of food, for that matter), manages well extreme temperatures, and doesn’t release any toxic substances to either food or the environment. I mean, what more can you ask for?

Nevertheless, there are a couple of disadvantages you should check out before committing to buy one of these pieces. Starting with the price, if you want good, durable porcelain enamel, you need a reputable high-end brand that makes thick and resistant coatings; with this particular material you want to avoid cheap pieces that are more prone to chipping and cracking. You should also consider that if you bump them too hard, drop them, or if your cat decides to push them off the counter, they will break (the only time I’ve almost regretted my cat lady lifestyle).

Here is my list with the best porcelain cookware sets.


And there you have it! I’ve covered the most commonly used cookware materials and their most common health concerns, and have come to a couple of conclusions:

  1. Always look for reputable brands with certified materials and processes.
  2. Don’t ever use metal utensils while cooking.
  3. It’s better to hand-wash your cookware, even if the manufacturer says it’s dishwasher friendly.
  4. Don’t ever leave your cat unsupervised in the kitchen.

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