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Healthy Cookware Choices

by Sarah Cimperman, ND


Eating healthy often involves cooking meals at home where you can control the ingredients and method of preparation. Cookware can be an equally important factor. The options are plentiful – nonstick, cast iron, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, glass, ceramic, silicone and plastic – but some are healthier than others. Weighing cookware pros and cons can help you make an informed choice that best fits your needs.

Nonstick Cookware

Nonstick pots and pans are easy to clean and require smaller amounts of oil during cooking compared to cookware made from other materials. However, one of the chemicals used in the manufacturing process, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is carcinogenic. Exposure to this chemical happens during manufacturing of Teflon and other nonstick products, putting factory workers at risk, but PFOA has also been found in drinking water near the DuPont plant (manufacturer of Teflon) in West Virginia and many nearby residents have filed a lawsuit after experiencing ill health effects.

Additionally, heating nonstick pots and pans to high temperatures can cause emission of toxic fumes. The exact unsafe temperature is unknown, so nonstick cookware should only be used to cook foods at low temperatures and for short periods of time. Other options, like cast iron and stainless steel, are better suited to higher temperatures and longer cooking times.

Cast Iron Cookware

Cast iron diffuses and retains heat well and can withstand very high temperatures. Cast iron cookware is a good choice for searing and other cooking methods that require high heat, and also for long-cooking dishes.

Pots and pans made from cast iron can leach iron into foods. This is an advantage for some and a disadvantage for others. It can be good for people who have iron deficiencies and those whose diets lack iron-rich foods like red meat, beans, lentils, millet, and dark green leafy vegetables. However, excess iron in the body can increase free radical production along with the risk for cancer and heart disease. It can also be especially dangerous for individuals who have an inherited metabolic disorder called hemochromatosis, also known as iron overload disease. These people should stay away from cast iron cookware and anyone who has a relative diagnosed with this condition should be tested for it as well.

Some cast iron pots and pans have an enamel coating that prevents rusting and leaching of iron into foods. It also eliminates the need to season the pan and allows for more thorough cleansing. However, because the layer of enamel also affects its ability to withstand high temperatures, these pans should only be used for cooking over low or medium heat.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is often the best option for stovetop cooking. Stainless steel pots and pans are especially good options for cooking foods at higher temperatures and making dishes that are started on the stovetop and transferred to the oven to finish cooking, like frittatas or braised bone-in meats. Stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, but most pots and pans made from this material contain an inner copper or aluminum core that ensures even heat distribution.

When cooking with stainless steel pots and pans, use oils and fats that do not oxidize easily and can withstand higher temperatures, like coconut oil and/or grape seed oil. Meat-eaters can save rendered fat from organic, pastured poultry like chicken, duck and turkey for use in cooking (avoid fat from animals raised in caged animal feeding operations). Don’t use an excessive amount of oil or fat with stainless steel cookware, and never deep-fry foods.

Copper

Copper is the best conductor of heat and the preference of many professional chefs. Cookware made of copper is very expensive and requires more maintenance than other materials. Copper pots and pans cannot be cleaned in dishwashers, must be hand-dried to prevent spotting, and require regular polishing. Because copper can react with foods, copper pots and pans are often lined with tin or stainless steel.

Aluminum

Second only to copper, aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat. Because aluminum can react with foods, it is not a recommended cooking surface. Instead, it is often found in pots and pans, layered between other metals like stainless steel, to aid even temperature distribution.

Glass and Ceramic

Glass and ceramic dishes are optimal for baking. Containers composed of one hundred percent glass and ceramic are the best choice for reheating food in microwave ovens (never microwave ceramic-coated cast iron cookware). They are also convenient for food storage and can be used in the fridge, oven and freezer.

Silicone

Silicone is a synthetic rubber that contains the natural element silicon. It has several advantages in the kitchen, including heat resistance, flexibility and versatility – it can be used in the oven, fridge or freezer. Because silicone cookware is new, we don’t have a lot of long-term safety information. But it appears to be inert, so it won’t react with foods it comes into contact with, and no safety problems have been reported.

Plastic

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests plastic materials intended for use with foods and beverages. Unfortunately, FDA regulations allow for very small amounts of chemicals such as diethylhexyl adipate or bisphenol A (BPA) to leak from plastics into foods. A study published in the January 2006 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that exposure to BPA was associated with insulin resistance, a condition that increases risk for type two diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and weight gain. The level of exposure to BPA in the study was 5,000 times below what has been established by the Environmental Protection Agency as the lowest dose needed to induce adverse effects in humans. Other studies have shown that BPA is present in the blood and urine of ninety-five percent of people tested.

To reduce exposure to BPA and associated health risks, avoid plastic containers completely. Avoid heating and storing foods and beverages in any kind of plastic container, even those approved for use in microwave ovens. Instead, use and re-use glass and ceramic containers. Not only are they better for our bodies, they are better for the environment as well.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to selecting cookware, consider the methods of cooking you use most and choose pots and pans that will work best for what you want to cook. Invest in good quality items, care for them properly, inspect them regularly, and replace cookware when surfaces become scratched, cracked, chipped or otherwise compromised.

Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman.com


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