Why Say “No” to Non-stick Cookware?

Non-stick pots and pans are easy to clean and most popular for ‘no-oil’ cooking. Who doesn’t love them?

However, more recently, they have come under the radar over concerns about toxic chemical emissions and just how ‘safe’ these pots and pans really are!

So the big question – are non-stick pans really safe? Here are the little known facts about non-stick cookware:

1. Once chipped or even scratched, the a non-stick pot or pan should be replaced. (no- not because you will eat any particles!)
2. Non-stick is toxic. At very high temperatures, they release a toxic gas.
3. At a temperature above 260°C — pans may more significantly decompose, emitting fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a temporary flu-like conditions.
4. These fumes won’t kill you, but they can kill pet birds, whose respiratory systems are more fragile.
5. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that is is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

What precisely is non-stick?

For most of us, non-stick is our favourite go-to kitchen article for those delicious dosas, parathas, pancakes, eggs, and much more! For starters, non-stick cookware is the cookware that browns food without letting it stick to the cookware’s surface. It aids the function of cooking with lesser use of oil or butter and is also easy to clean as hardly any food residue sticks onto the surface of the cookware.

Non-stick comes in two forms – Teflon® and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. According to the American Cancer Society:

Teflon® is a brand name for a man-made chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It has been in commercial use since the 1940s. It has a wide variety of uses because it is extremely stable (it doesn’t react with other chemicals) and can provide an almost frictionless surface. Most people are familiar with it as a non-stick coating surface for pans and other cookware. It is also used in many other products, such as fabric protectors.

PFOA is another man-made chemical. It is used in the process of making Teflon and similar chemicals (known as fluorotelomers), although it is burned off during the process and is not present in significant amounts in the final products.

Why we should preferably ditch the non-stick?

Its simple – the fantastic qualities of this chemical composition do make a good non-stick pan but also raise grave health concerns.

“PFOA has the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. Studies have found that it is present worldwide at very low levels in just about everyone’s blood. Higher blood levels have been found in community residents where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFOA. People exposed to PFOA in the workplace can have levels many times higher.

PFOA and some similar compounds can be found at low levels in some foods, drinking water, and in household dust. Although PFOA levels in drinking water are usually low, they can be higher in certain areas, such as near chemical plants that use PFOA.

People can also be exposed to PFOA from ski wax or from fabrics and carpeting that have been treated to be stain resistant. Non-stick cookware is not a significant source of PFOA exposure.” according to the American Cancer Society.

We all hear about non-sticks being unsafe for cooking, but do we know why so? The crux of the problem lies in how Teflon is produced. Free-radical polymerisation is the only way we can derive Teflon. Putting it forth in common terms, when unpaired electrons from different molecules (free radicals) are combined through a chemical reaction (polymerisation) they form three dimensional chain structures like Teflon.

So what happens when we rapidly heat such structures like that of Teflon to soaring temperatures? They break down or saying so scientifically, Teflon is capable of explosively decomposing to let off tetrafluoromethane and carbon in gaseous form. When it is highly heated, its chemical composition breaks and the toxic radicals are easily set free in the surrounding environment. Though manufacturer’s labels always warn us to avoid using Teflon on high heat, but do we really know what this means? It means that this polymer causes various problems at various temperatures.

The fumes emitted from overheated Teflon have reportedly caused deaths of pet birds. Toxic fumes are not life threatening to humans but they are detrimental to our heath. Anywhere above 260°C of Teflon’s temperature causes polymer fume fever, that is a temporary flu like situation characteristic of headache and fever.

While many of us use steel spatulas to toss and cook food in a non-stick, we tend to break the Teflon coating over a period. We do not say wear-and-tear is bad, but what follows this is certainly not good. Scratches on a non-stick break the coating and let loose the polymers. This in turn increases its heat sensitivity and expedites the heating process. The pan will reach the fuming temperature before we know it and that shall be very harmful to our health. What will long term exposure to such fumes do to the human body has not yet been studied. Thus, it is suggestive that we prefer other cooking options to non-stick.

Finally, while non-stick is not directly related to cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that is is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B), based on limited evidence in humans that it can cause testicular and kidney cancer, and limited evidence in lab animals.

Choosing safer cookware over non-sticks

Why worry when we always had backups. Do you remember what our grandmas used to cook up delicacies in? Yes, you are right, our very own ‘old is gold’ cookware – cast iron and stainless steel pans! We agree that cleaning these materials after that overwhelming dinner can be a task. However, our health is worth all that scrubbing, isn’t it? Many other options for cooking and baking are way safer than non-stick and are readily available in the market.

These certainly do prove healthy at high temperatures at which non-stick lets off dangerous fumes! Some examples of safe cookware are seasoned and enamelled cast iron, and stainless steel cookware. Taking this is a notch higher, have you heard about surgical stainless steel cookware? Yes, we are talking about the steel otherwise used in biomedical applications, which is considered to be the ‘gold standard of cookware’. This is because of one of its many brilliant qualities that is it does not leach into your food.

Why settle for an unhealthy non-stick when a safer cookware is available? Make a healthy move!

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