There's no busier cooking (and eating) season than late fall through early winter—a.k.a right now. But while most of the attention goes to sugar cookies, sweet potato casseroles, and turkeys, you might want to also take stock of what you’re cooking in.
"People are out there making all this great-tasting food, but they're cooking it in toxic pots and pans," says Wayne Feister, D.O., a general-practice physician.
Nonstick cookware, sold under trade names like Teflon, is risky business. The coatings are made with a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which itself is made from perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA has been linked to male infertility, pregnancy difficulties, high cholesterol, and thyroid problems.
"A lot of times nonstick pans will say they have no Teflon, but they're still coated with PTFE," says Feister. "So it's basically Teflon."
He adds that PTFE coatings have been found to emit six different toxic chemicals and trigger something called "Teflon flu"—characterized by headaches, backaches, and chills—when pans are heated to a mere 100°F. Even scarier, PTFE-based coatings emit ultrafine particulates when heated to 464°F, and PFOA is released when the pans reach 680°F. (When frying meat, a pan can reach anywhere from 400°F to 470°F; and tests have found that a pan preheated for 3 minutes and 20 seconds can reach 736°F).
To steer clear of PTFE-based coatings, avoid pans advertised as Fluron, Supra, Greblon, Xylon, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph, Unison, Swiss Diamond, and T-Fal.
2) Anodized Aluminum
Another material on Feister's watch list is anodized aluminum. Though it's an excellent heat conductor, aluminum has been linked to bone and brain damage and has been found to interfere with the central nervous system. "Some studies have shown that it causes cancer in estrogen receptors in human breast tissue," he adds.
In cookware, aluminum reacts with highly acidic or salty foods, imparting an undesirable metallic flavor to food, so manufacturers started to "anodize" it. In the anodization process, a piece of aluminum cookware is dipped into an acid bath, through which an electrical current is sent. This forms a hard coating that prevents food from reacting with the metal. "But repeated exposure to acidic foods can cause deanodization," he says, "and you don't want bare aluminum touching your food."
If that's not enough, now Calphalon, the leading manufacturer of anodized cookware, has started adding PTFE to its coatings.
Aluminum cookie sheets are also surprisingly common. If you own one and don’t want to replace it, simply line it with parchment paper before dolloping on your batter.
This is one of the best materials to have in your kitchen—both from a health and durability standpoint. Feister cites historical evidence from Africa, where iron-deficiency anemia disappeared after people suffering from it started cooking with cast iron. Bonus: Cast iron makes food taste better. "Food sticks a bit more to cast iron and is able to caramelize more," he says. "That enhances the taste. If a pan is truly nonstick, you're messing with some of the stuff that gives food flavor." (Check out these 2 ways to clean cast-iron the right way—so you don't ruin your pans.)
But not all cast iron is created equal. "The most important thing about cast iron is to know where it's made," Feister says. Cast iron that isn't made in the U.S. may have been made with recycled metal, which sounds good in theory, but isn't really safe. "If somebody has taken a bunch of recycled metal and melted it down into your cookware, what's to say there's not lead, cadmium, or mercury in it?"
The only American-made brand is Lodge Manufacturing, which sells pre-seasoned cast iron cookware and has a good track record for safety and durability.
Enameled cast iron is basically a glass coating over iron. It's naturally nonstick, Feister says, and it's great for roasting meat and for making tomato sauces, which will react with regular cast iron and eat away at the pans' seasoning.
In addition to Lodge, both Le Creuset and Staub, sell enameled cast iron, and have lifetime warranties on their products.
2) Stainless Steel
A good set of clad stainless-steel pots will last you a lifetime, Feister notes. "Clad" means that the pots and pans are made from layers of heat-conducting metals, such as aluminum or copper, that are surrounded by stainless steel.
Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, but it doesn't react with food and it doesn't pose any health threats. So you get the heat-conducting benefits of cooking with aluminum or copper without being exposed to them.
A very small percentage of people are allergic to the nickel in stainless steel, he says, but the material won't pose any problems to the general population. Feister's preferred brand is All-Clad, which comes with a lifetime warranty. Just make sure it's not "bottom-clad" only.
Stoneware is another great alternative, Feister says. You can find stoneware muffin pans and rectangular stone sheets that can be used for cookies.
The Ideal Cookware Set
Buying a 10-piece set of pots and pans can be a waste of money if you wind up with a bunch of pieces you don't need. In addition to the glass and stoneware baking items, Feister recommends having the following pots and pans in your kitchen. They'll serve all your cooking needs without exposing you to toxic chemicals. And since the season of massive-markdown sales is nigh upon us, you might even find some at a discount.