The importance of eating the right foods and its affect on health is becoming more and more clear. Unfortunately, if you are cooking that nutrient-dense, delicious food in the wrong cookware, you may still be falling short of reaching your health potential. How you cook and store your food can have an impact on your well-being, perhaps as much as the food itself.
Many types of cookware, all products of modern technology, can actually be harmful. These products, such as non-stick coating, are not benign and unimportant, and should be avoided in a health-minded kitchen. I don't intend to create fear or perfectionism, but I do want bring attention to this issue, as you may have some items in your kitchen that need to be replaced to protect you and your family. Most of the cookware to avoid contains heavy metals that, when consumed over time, can build up to create a toxicity. It is well accepted that these metals have acute toxicity effects, but the chronic effects from small doses over a period of time is starting to become well-known. We have toxic heavy metals showing up all over our lives, from medicines and amalgam fillings to drinking water and food packaging, and even some jewelry. Chronic exposure to heavy metals, as well as other industrial chemicals in cookware, can lead to increased oxidation, leading to inflammation throughout the body.
You may find your health actually begins to improve once you remove the sources of these heavy metals and other industrial products in your life. One obvious place to start is with cookware, as it is something you likely use every day. And, if you are working toward health goals but have hit a wall with improving your diet, changing how you cook your food may get you to the next step in wellness.
First, we will start with which cookware to avoid. These are made from or are coated with substances that have been shown to be detrimental to health and you should try to find alternatives when possible.
1. Aluminum Cookware
Avoiding aluminum in the kitchen is a good place to start, and especially applies to cookware used on the stove top. Aluminum is a cheap material and it is light to ship, so it is popular among people looking for low-cost cookware. Unfortunately, the aluminum, a heavy metal, is released from the pan once it is scratched or cooked with liquids, acids, or heat, and then it would be leached into the food. Cooking on the stove top may lead to more scratches than in bake ware. Scraping the aluminum, including aluminum foil, with a metal utensil is causes increased exposure. Cooking acidic foods in aluminum is also a source of leaching, so stove top use should be avoided if at all possible. Chronic aluminum exposure has been linked to Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's disease and behavioral disorders, as well as issues with reproductive health. If you have aluminum bake ware and don't want to upgrade to a more expensive material, this is a little safer as you are not cooking acidic foods in it and usually they are dry instead of liquids. Until you can upgrade, be sure to only use wooden or other non-metal utensils when removing items from the pan to avoid scratching. This includes metal pie pans, foil, baking sheets and even some ice cream makers. Instead of an aluminum pie tin, go for glass or stainless instead. Same with baking dishes, cake pans, loaf pans and more. Pressure cookers are almost all aluminum, and while I don't think pressure cookers are a healthful way to cook your food in the first place, if you are going to use one please try to find an aluminum-free version. Stainless steel is the best alternative to aluminum if you are looking for metal cookware, and beeswax-based food wrap is a great alternative to aluminum foil.
2. Non-Stick Coating (Teflon)
The desire to avoid Teflon, or non-stick, cookware is becoming more mainstream all the time and is no longer just an issue that health food store shoppers care about. A chemical used in making Teflon, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been linked to cancer, infertility, thyroid and heart problems. Some people even report feeling ill due to breathing the fumes that are put off by cooking in a Teflon (polytetrafuloroethylene) pan. Scratching the Teflon surface is especially harmful, as more of the PFOA chemical is released. If you have a non-stick pan that you are still using (until you go get a non-Teflon one!), be sure to not use metal utensils when cooking, as this can easily scratch the pan. Also, do not use it for long cooking times or under high heat, as this also releases more of the chemical and is therefore more likely to lead to health issues. I totally understand the desire to not have our food stick to the pan, but it isn't worth the health effects, and there are alternatives. I think non-stick became more popular when people started being afraid to cook with fats, which are what helps prevent food from sticking in the first place. The solution, then is to use more healthy fats for cooking, which will help prevent sticking. You can also opt for stainless steel or cast iron skillets instead, as well as stainless steel bake ware. If you can only find non-stick-coated bake ware, be sure to put a barrier between the surface and your food, such as Silpat (silicone baking sheets), parchment paper or cupcake liners. That same rule applies to aluminum bake ware as well, so adding a barrier with either material will help reduce health effects.
Though you are likely not doing much cooking with plastic because it melts easily, it does belong in this section, as many people are in the habit of putting plastic containers in their microwaves. This happens with foods storage containers, plates, plastic wrap, and even baby bottles. Of course, I don't advocate the use of microwaves at all, but heating plastic in them adds a whole new level of toxic load. Putting plastic containers in microwaves and heating them releases BPA and phalates into your food, which have been linked to estrogen imbalance and endocrine disruption as well as cancer. Limit plastics in your kitchen as much as you can, including plastic wrap (use beeswax food wrap instead!) and storage containers. Plastic lids for glass jars and storage containers, which don't have contact with the food, may be used on occasion, but anything that will have direct contact should be recycled. Plastics numbered 2, 4 and 5 are safer for storage, but should have limited use and should never be heated. And for goodness sake, get rid of the plastic water bottles and baby bottles.
While it can be overwhelming to overhaul the cookware in your kitchen, it is worth it. Luckily, there are so many more healthful kinds of cookware available than there used to be, so it is easier and more affordable than ever to turn your kitchen into a healthier place.
Here are the kinds of cookware to look for to keep the toxic load in your kitchen low:
1. Cast Iron
This is my favorite type of cookware to use on the stove top. When seasoned properly, it becomes naturally non-stick and can be used for a variety of functions. Besides stove top use, you can also bake in cast iron pans or even use over a camp fire. You can get a variety of different kinds of pans made out of cast iron, such as skillets, dutch ovens, muffin pans, and my personal favorite, waffle irons. Cast iron waffle makers are far superior to non-stick coated ones, plus they look so much cooler!
Cooking mildly acidic foods in a cast iron skillet can actually add iron to your food, so if you already have an excess of iron in your body, try to avoid cooking acidic foods in cast iron. I avoid cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce in cast iron because of this, as well as the slightly metallic taste it imparts. But for frying an egg or baking crusty sourdough bread, cast iron is my go-to.
2. Ceramic, Stoneware, and Clay
For baking, stoneware is just great. It holds heat really nicely and is light enough that it doesn't cause your baked goods to get too dark. I have a stoneware loaf pan that makes fantastic sourdough loaves or even banana bread. Ceramic cookware can be used for stove top or oven purposes, but can get expensive. Corning Ware, though not manufactured anymore, can often be found online or in thrift stores and are great ceramic products to cook and bake with. Be sure to purchase ceramic cookware that uses a lead-free glaze, and do not cook with anything labeled "for decoration only" as it contains lead. This is also true of slow cookers, as many have lead in the glaze for the crock insert. Companies like Hamilton Beach make lead-free slow cookers, or use a Vita Clay slow cooker instead, that is made with a clay insert instead of ceramic. I love using my Vita Clay for slow cooking as well as making perfect rice every time. Le Creuset makes gorgeous, yet expensive, ceramic cookware like dutch ovens, as well as enamel-coated cast iron and steel pans. These types of cookware can be a great, more natural, choice for your kitchen, but be sure to do your research before buying expensive cookware so you know what you are actually getting.
Glass is a great cookware material to use, especially if you know your way around a kitchen. I say this because the biggest problem with glass cookware is breakage, mostly from people "shocking" their pans. If the pan is hot from cooking and cold water is placed in it, it will likely shatter. If you are careful to avoid shocking or breaking by dropping it, you will likely have a great experience with glass cookware. It can be used both for stove top and baking purposes. I like glass for casserole and baking dishes, pie pans and more. This is another product to be sure is lead-free before buying. Though not being cooked in, I also recommend glass for food storage, blender jars, baby bottles, water bottles and anything that is usually made of plastic. Mason and other glass jars, Anchor, Pyrex and other companies make jars and containers for just about any occasion.
4. Metals: Stainless, Carbon Steel, Titanium
A good-quality stainless steel skillet can be a great tool in the kitchen, as well as utensils such as measuring cups, knives and spatulas. I use stainless steel stock pots, sauce pans, and skillets (when not using cast iron) on the stove top, and for baking, stainless steel sheet pans and cake pans. Stainless steel gets a bit controversial, as quality has much to do with its healthfulness. Some cheaper stainless steel used can actually leach nickel into food, especially when something acidic is cooked in it. This can cause allergic reactions or toxicity problems in people, so choosing high quality stainless steel, such as series 316, decreases your chances of such problems. Carbon steel baking pans are a good alternative to their Teflon-coated counterparts for something more non-stick and cost effective. Titanium bake ware that is not non-stick can also a also good option, though I tend to go for quality stainless instead, but it is useful for kitchen utensils that are not used directly for cooking, such as food processor blades.
Obviously, you aren't going to be cooking with a lot of wooden pots, but I think wood can be a great material to have in your kitchen. The main cooking you would do involving wood would be bamboo steamer baskets, but you will find wood in other kitchen tools. Wooden cooking utensils are much preferred over any kind of metal in my opinion, and wood makes the best material for a butcher block or cutting board (although you can find some plastic cutting boards that are BPA and phthalate-free for cutting meat and such). You could go one step further and carve your own wooden spoons and other utensils to add a homemade element to your cookware collection.
For more on heavy metal toxicity, including in cookware, check out the article Mad As A Hatter, by Dr. Kaayla Daniel, PhD and Dr. Galen Knight, PhD on the Weston Price Foundation website. Remember, what you choose is up to you and your family. It may seem like every option has its pros and cons, and there may be no one perfect type of cookware. Cost may be prohibitive in making changes in the kitchen, so start with what you can. Make whatever decisions are right for you and your family. Most of all, I urge you to be an informed consumer. Know what you are buying, where it is made, and what it's made of; then you can make responsible decisions that make you feel good and more healthful.
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.