For the longest time I had been using non-stick pans for cooking, especially during my low fat eating days when it allowed me to put no oil in the pan and still cook a perfect egg white omelette (insert eye roll here).
These pans were covered with the famous Teflon® coating. Teflon is the brand name for the man-made chemical polytetrafluoroethylene, which has been used commercially for over 50 years. Teflon is part of the perfluorynated chemical (PFC) family. Chemicals from this family have been associated with smaller birth weight babies, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, weakened immunity, elevated cholesterol and liver inflammation.
The issue arises when we heat these pans to temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit because at this temperature smaller chemical fragments are released. Believe it or not, these chemical fragments that are released into the air can actually cause people to develop flu-like symptoms (called the “Teflon flu” by scientists) and can even kill pet birds (who have a more sensitive respiratory system).
But don’t worry – long term effects of regular exposure to these toxic fumes have not been studied… which in many people’s opinion makes it “safe” for use.
I won’t get off on a tangent but this is one of the issues I have with health research. If something shows not the best results in the short term (Teflon pans, artificial sweeteners, etc.) then do we really need to wait for long term research to be conducted before we make the simple switch to something that doesn’t cause these short term issues?
So What Should I Use?
I recommend that people use cast iron, ceramic and stainless steel pots and pans and glass ovenproof dishes. There isn’t sufficient research on other types of Teflon-free cookware so I just prefer to stick to the basics (excuse the pun).
I Don’t Want To Replace My Cookware… So What Can I Do Now?
The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, put together a list of what you should do if you’re still cooking with Teflon pans.
- Never preheat an empty pan. When pans are heated when empty they reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 5 minutes (remember, this is the temperature in which toxic fumes are emitted)
- Lighter Teflon pans seem to emit fumes faster (sometimes within 2 minutes) than heavier Teflon pans. If you’re going to continue to purchase these pans, use one that is heavier.
- The may be an obvious one, but don’t scrape or chip the pan. Avoid using metal utensils when cooking and instead stick with wooden utensils. Also, avoid piling other pots or pans on top of your Teflon pan. This will help keep the surface in good condition.
- Properly ventilate your kitchen. Turn on the exhaust fan and open some windows to reduce your exposure to these fumes.
- Replace your non-stick pan frequently, at least every couple of years.
Remember that it seems like everything these days causes cancer. I often get the question from readers, “do you use a microwave?” and my answer is yes. This is a controversial topic for many people and I commend people who don’t use a microwave but to be totally honest, using a microwave allows me to eat much healthier meals because I am able to quickly reheat leftovers.
I like to think of nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices as being on a spectrum – not the best, good, better. For some of us, cooking healthy vegetables in a Teflon pan may be a good option compared to eating food cooked in your deep fryer at home or microwave dinners and that is PERFECT. I wanted to write this post not to scare you but to bring awareness to the issue.