Healthy cooking starts with healthy cookware. And there are so many choices of cookware available today. What influences your buying? Do you opt for the colorful set that matches your kitchen decor? Should you settle for the sale item, or purchase cookware endorsed by your favorite celebrity chef?
Deciding which cookware to use requires some research. Understanding which cookware is durable, difficult, or easy to care for, which is the best conductor of heat, and which metals react with certain foods are important factors to consider. Most importantly to know is what impact your cookware could be having on your health. Did you know that certain cookware can leach harmful chemicals into your food? Before putting a pan on the stove, read the pros and cons of these basic types of cookware to determine which is best.
Teflon nonstick pans are coated with PFOA, a petrol-chemical used in the manufacture of non-stick cookware to reduce sticking. No scrubbing required, Teflon pans are easy to clean with a sponge. The downside, when heated Teflon pans can leach toxic chemicals into your food. When scratched, the problem escalates. Consumer Affairs warns that the chemical PFOA has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Do your health a favor and discard that harmful Teflon pan.
Aluminum is a great conductor of heat, but it should not be used to prepare food. Aluminum is not needed in the human body, so any amount ingested is harmful. Avoid aluminum cookware and disposable aluminum pans as well. When ingested, aluminum can penetrate and accumulate in the brain and harm other organs such as the kidneys. Aluminum depletes the body of calcium and phosphorus, thus weakening the bones. Aluminum toxicity has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. It has also been reported to contribute to chronic systemic inflammation in the body which can lead to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. If you have a keepsake aluminum kettle or cake pan from Granny, like I do, use it solely for decoration.
Anodized aluminum cookware is a nonreactive, scratch resistant and non-stick alternative to traditional aluminum. However, if the anodized aluminum cookware becomes scratched, acidic foods such as tomato, lemon or wine sauces will react with the exposed metal and leach toxins into the food.
Cast iron is a classic cookware that is built to last. First used indoors on wood burning cookstoves, cast iron remains a longtime favorite in country kitchens, and among outdoor enthusiasts. It is highly durable and able to conduct and retain heat extremely well. Rinse cast-iron cookware under hot running water after each use, and scrub if needed with a stainless steel pad or sponge only, no soap. After rinsing, place wet cast-iron cookware on a hot burner to dry, prevent rusting, and disinfect. Rub the dry skillet with a little cooking oil.
Cooking in iron pots and pans may increase your iron absorption, especially when preparing acidic foods. If your iron levels are low, this can be beneficial to your health. If you have high iron levels in your blood, excess iron can accumulate in the brain, impairing memory and attributing to Alzheimer’s. If you use cast iron daily, you may consider having your iron levels tested.
Enameled cast iron cookware adds a modern day non-stick surface to this age old classic, and eliminates the need for seasoning. Quality enameled cast iron comes in a variety of decorative colors that won’t chip or discolor. It is heavy, and takes time to heat up, and is more expensive than most other options, but it will last and last.
Copper pots and pans were originally made with a tin lining to avoid a reaction between the food and the copper. Most copper cookware on the market today has a durable, easy-to-clean, stainless-steel lining to avoid possible copper poisoning. Copper not only looks spectacular hanging from your pot rack, but is a great conductor of heat.
Stainless steel is the most popular cookware used today. It is durable, scratch-resistant and affordable. It isn’t a good conductor of heat, so manufacturers may use a copper or aluminum core. Stainless steel is made using a combination of metals, including nickel and chromium to give it a rust resistant surface. Although stainless steel is not reactive to acidic foods, worn cookware may leach nickel or chromium into the foods prepared, which may pose a problem for those with nickel allergies. Otherwise, it is generally considered a healthy cookware choice.
Carbon steel is the metal of choice for woks and paella pans used for stir-frying. These large pans are made of thin and lightweight materials that are very resistant to high heat. Over time, the pan is said to develop a nonstick surface. Carbon steel requires seasoning before its initial use and should be seasoned before storing, to prevent rust.
Enamel-on-steel is carbon steel coated with a thin layer of enamel, making it superior to carbon steel. The enamel gives it a low-stick surface, eliminating the need for seasoning. It is lightweight and more affordable than enameled cast-iron. It is generally used for boiling and cooking at medium heat, as it is not resistant to high heat. It is also prone to chipping, which can lead to rust.
Ceramic is the newest nonstick cookware on the market. Unlike its petroleum based, Teflon counterpart, ceramic cookware is highly valued for its healthy and environmentally friendly cooking surface. It requires less cooking oil or butter than most cookware options, and food practically slides right out of the pan. Pairing healthy with ease in cooking, ceramic cookware offers the best options.
Deborah Tukua is a natural living, healthy lifestyle writer and author of 7 non-fiction books, including Pearls of Garden Wisdom: Time-Saving Tips and Techniques from a Country Home, Pearls of Country Wisdom: Hints from a Small Town on Keeping Garden and Home, and Naturally Sweet Blender Treats. Tukua has been a writer for the Farmers' Almanac since 2004.