Choosing foods that support optimal health is important, but so is the cookware we us to prepare it. There are many cookware options, and our kitchens are likely stocked with an assortment of materials of varying age and condition, from stainless steel and ceramic, to non-stick and glass. Some materials are safer and better at retaining nutrients in food during cooking, while others can have negative consequences on overall health. Here’s an overview to help you make the healthiest choices with cookware.
Nutrient Retention. Evidence shows that cooking reduces the level of nutrients in foods. Generally, higher temperatures result in lowest nutrient retention. The type of cooking vessel plays a direct role. Many vitamins and minerals are heat sensitive, which means they are reduced or destroyed by exposure to heat. This is important to know because many of these micronutrients are essential in healthy diets. A study in the Journal of Food Science and Technology tested several types of cookware to determine the degree of nutrient loss influenced by each. The types included: new (non-pitted) aluminum, old (pitted) aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, enamel coated, and cast iron. Foods were tested for nutrients (vitamins A, B1, C; sodium, potassium, selenium, magnesium, calcium, and zinc) in their raw state and then their cooked state. The study found that food cooked at low temperatures would be healthier, and foods cooked using titanium and enamel cookware had the best retention of nutrients compared to the other types of cookware tested. Old aluminum was specifically discouraged due to the lowest nutrient retention.
Cookware to Reconsider. Avoid cookware that is cracked, chipped, has rough edges or surfaces, or is not easily cleaned, which can potentially trap and harbor food or bacteria. Use of metal or otherwise hard utensils on cookware can scratch and mar surfaces and cause them to wear out faster. Wood, silicone, or other soft utensil material are better choices.
Some cookware is made with materials that can potentially release toxins in unhealthy fumes or leaching from surfaces into food over time.
Teflon. Many nonstick cooking items are coated in Teflon, which can contain PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene). At high heat, this coating breaks down, potentially releasing toxins into the air. Although Teflon has not been made with the chemical that has been linked to health and environmental risks since 2013, the fumes may still have adverse effects, such as temporary flu-like symptoms, and it’s likely many of us still own and are using them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that as long as they are heated within moderate temperatures and scratching and peeling are avoided, they are approved as safe. For nonstick, “nontoxic” cookware that are free of these chemicals, avoid high cooking temps and scratches, and be aware that safety research is still emerging.
Aluminum. Lightweight and a quick conductor of heat, aluminum cookware is widely used. Aluminum can leach into food during cooking, especially with acidic foods and when scratched by metal utensils. Some studies have linked excess aluminum to disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed. Single use, disposable aluminum pans and tins may increase leaching risk as well. Anodized aluminum is a safer option, as it makes the surface more durable and resistant to scratches.
Copper. Like aluminum, copper can leach particles through scratches and cooking with acidic foods. Too much copper in our bodies has been linked with health issues. Most copper cookware is lined with stainless steel or other protective coating, which can scratch off and degrade with use.
Cook with Confidence. Of the many great choices of healthy cookware, these materials are solid choices. As with all pots, pans, and baking dishes, keeping them in good condition results in the healthiest, safest cooking. Use wood utensils rather than metal to avoid scratches and wash them by hand using non-abrasive scrubbers.
Stainless Steel. Made of iron and carbon with some chromium and nickel, stainless steel is fine for anyone who doesn’t have a nickel allergy. It is non-reactive to acidic foods, durable, and widely available.
Cast Iron. Iron will leach from this cookware, which may help reduce iron deficiency, but acidic foods cause more iron to leach into food if you’re concerned about iron. These vessels are durable and nonstick when seasoned correctly, but they rust without proper care.
Enamel Cast Iron. Coated with a powder glass coating fired into it, this cookware is nonstick, will not leach chemicals, is non-reactive to foods, doesn’t rust, and is durable, but it’s also expensive and heavy.
Glass. A safe, chemical-free material that can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, and is non-reactive to foods. Glass is widely available and affordable but can chip and break easily.
Titanium. Slow to heat, but it won’t leach chemicals into foods. Very lightweight, so it’s ideal for camping or other on-the-go cooking occasions.