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You’re crazy to cook with Teflon. Here’s what to buy instead

Article at a Glance
  • Lawsuits that linked PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon prior to 2015, forced large manufacturers to change the way they make nonstick pans.
  • Teflon is the brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
  • Many nonstick pans on the market today still use PTFE, a man made chemical that releases toxic vapor at high temperatures. Some studies have linked PTFE with increased cancer risk.
  • Popular brands such as Kitchenaid and Calphalon still use Teflon in their nonstick pans.
  • Although there is no “smoking gun” linking use of Teflon cookware to cancer, PTFE is known to be dangerous, and it’s easy to choose a nontoxic alternative at a comparable price.
Genes Mentioned

I was in Target the other day looking for a new saute pan. As I evaluated options, I realized I knew I wanted to avoid non-stick Teflon products, but I couldn’t say exactly why. I’d heard they were unhealthy, but hadn’t taken the time to look at any research.

In the end, I opted for a stainless steel pan, then headed home resigned to do some reading.

My conclusion: although manufacturers have taken steps to make Teflon safer, there is no good reason to cook with the stuff. Teflon is made with dangerous chemicals, and there are multiple non-toxic alternatives on the market, including many non stick options, so why take the risk?

Environmental toxins are an issue we take seriously here at Gene Food, especially in light of emerging research that sheds light on how genetic differences can impact the body’s ability to clear toxins, as well as the science of epigenetics, which is the study of how our lifestyle influences gene expression. Whether it’s toxins in a mattress, or pollutants in the air, our aim is to keep the toxic burden to a minimum, and yes, the pots and pans we cook with can either increase or decrease our exposure to toxic chemicals.

With that said, let’s talk about Teflon, why you should avoid cooking with it, and what to buy instead.

What is Teflon?

Teflon is the brand name for a man made chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). For purposes of this post, I will often use Teflon and PTFE interchangeably. When I mention the link between PTFE and cancer, I am relying heavily on this study, which highlights elevated incidence of cancer in workers exposed to tetrafluoroethylene (TFE), a compound used for the production of fluorinated polymers including PTFE.

We also know that TFE increases the risk of cancer in rats and mice.

Another chemical, also a known carcinogen, called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, was traditionally used to make Teflon, until it was phased out around 2014 after lawsuits alleged it caused cancer. Since that time, the misconception that Teflon is no longer being used to make modern cookware has started to gain steam.

Do companies still use Teflon?

In fact, when I told my staff I was doing a post on Teflon and nontoxic cookware, they assumed Teflon wasn’t even in production any longer.

Unfortunately, Teflon is alive and well.

You may have heard that DuPont settled a lawsuit for 670 million over PFOA. PFOA got into the ground water in West Virginia and Ohio, which led to elevated rates of cancer in communities close the plants. As a result, many companies stopped using PFOA to make Teflon, but as we’ll see, this is largely a public relations and marketing initiative because these same manufacturers still use PTFE in their cookware.

Even if PTFE doesn’t cause disease for the people that cook with it, we know it causes disease in the people who work in the plants that manufacture the chemicals, so buying these products puts people at risk. We vote with our dollars, and with many viable cookware alternatives out there, it just doesn’t make sense to use Teflon in the kitchen.

Brands that still use Teflon

As a general rule, brands that advertise “hard anodized” nonstick products are using a combination of aluminum and a “PFOA free Teflon” surface that is still made with PTFE. Cookware made with aluminum is questionable in its own right in light of some studies which show elevated levels of aluminum in the brain’s of Alzheimer’s patients, but we will save that discussion for another blog post. (R)

And, to be fair, not all of the companies listed below make cookware exclusively with Teflon. Many, like Calphalon, have higher end options that don’t use PTFE.

Tramontina

Ballarini

TeChef

American Kitchen

Kitchenaid

Calphalon

Brands that don’t use Teflon

Note: these lists aren’t exhaustive.

Cuisinart (Cuisinart nonstick uses a Titanium reinforced cooking surface called Quantanium®)

Lodge

Le Creuset

Agile

Teflon vs. non-Teflon brands on Amazon

BrandMaterialProduct
CuisinartStainless SteelMCP-12N Multiclad Pro Stainless Steel 12-Piece Cookware Set
CuisinartTitanium66-10 Chef's Classic Nonstick Hard-Anodized 10-Piece Cookware Set
LodgeCast-IronL8SK3 10-1/4-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet
Le CreusetCast-IronSignature Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round French (Dutch) Oven
AgileSoapstoneAgile Brazilian Soapstone Grill Pizza Pan Copper Handles
TramontinaTeflon15-piece Hard Anodized Cookware Set
BallariniTeflonParma Forged Aluminium Nonstick Skillet Fry Pan
TeChefTeflonArt Pan Collection / Fry Pan, Coated 5 times with Teflon Select Non-Stick Coating
American KitchenTeflon10-Inch Premium Nonstick Frying Pan
KitchenaidTeflonProfessional Hard Anodized Nonstick 5-Piece Cookware Set
CalphalonTeflonContemporary Hard-Anodized Aluminum Nonstick Cookware, Omelette Fry Pan, 10-inch and 12-inch Set

Why you shouldn’t cook with Teflon

We’ve already touched on it, but Teflon is made with chemicals that are known carcinogens.

The only dispute is whether those chemicals accumulate in the body in large enough quantities to do us harm. Although it’s been discontinued in cookware, PFOA is till used to make products ranging from carpeting to clothing, so thanks to companies like DuPont, most of us now have trace amounts of PFOA in our blood. (R) The issue, as with dental amalgams and mercury, is whether these levels are “safe.”

According to the EPA, PFOA is a known carcinogen, but since most of it burned off in the process of making Teflon, the “authority” websites on the internet claimed that Teflon was safe to use in cooking. Since the DuPont lawsuit, PFOA is no longer used in most cookware, and brands now proudly tout their “PFOA free” Teflon cookware as safe. The problem is that these nonstick surfaces are still made of PTFE. Remember, just a few years ago, PFOA was safe. Now it is no longer used by any reputable company to make cookware. But we are supposed to trust these same companies and continue cooking our food on PTFE coated surfaces?

WebMD seems to think so. They confidently state that the purported link between non stick Teflon pans and cancer is FALSE.

Maybe they’re right.

Maybe they’re probably right.

But maybe they’re wrong, just as they were wrong about PFOA.

If cancer, like so many diseases, is multifactorial, how can we know for sure? Maybe exposure to small amounts of PTFE doesn’t cause cancer, but what if PTFE is combined with high levels of dioxin in the diet? What if PTFE accumulates more rapidly in an individual with SOD2 polymorphisms that slow the body’s ability to clear free radicals? What if someone with a genetic predisposition to cancer gets exposed to PTFE, and the PTFE is the “match” that turns on the cancer?

We simply don’t know.

But there are clues emerging.

Let’s play a game of “what about?”

Studies that looked at PTFE, PFOA and Cancer

Teflon cookware and cancer risk Science Score

What about studies in rats that show PTFE causes cancer? (R)

What about the factory workers in plants that make TFE, and their increased risk for cancer? (R)

What about population studies that link exposure to PFOA to increased cancer risk? (R)

And finally, what about the fact that when PTFE is exposed to very high heat, it begins to degrade and releases toxic particles into the air? (R)

Teflon proponents would probably say, “yes, PTFE only degrades after exposure to very high heat, and you’d only reach that level if you left the pan empty over an open flame for an extended time.” Maybe. But do we know for sure that there are no emissions that result from a Teflon pan being heated for 20-30 minutes at medium heat, or at high heat? What about people who put Teflon pans in the oven at high temperatures?

And then there’s also common sense.

Why would anyone want to cook with a material that becomes toxic at high heat, when the act of cooking heats that chemical over and over again? Does repeated exposure to moderate heat begin to break down the PTFE over time? How long does that take? 6 months? One year?

Why support businesses that use this crap in any product, ever?

Is “PFOA free” Teflon safe?

I think you know my answer.

It certainly appears to be “safer.” I would much rather cook with a Teflon product manufactured after 2014 than before. However, you’re still cooking on a surface made with some really funky chemicals. At high heat, PTFE gives off toxic vapor, yet we want to cook with it?

If you don’t want any PTFE seasoning your food, my view is, why take the chance that any of the chemicals used to make Teflon will leach into the food? The risk seems especially silly when we realize that every type of cookware we use adds something to the food we eat.

For example, iron. As we will learn in the section that follows, cooking with cast iron will add trace amounts of iron to food. I am not saying that cooking with Teflon adds huge amounts of PTFE to food. My point is that it is absurd to put our food on a toxic chemical over high heat when it is conceded that we don’t know how that process affects our health, and when we know that at high enough heat that same chemical off gases!

Why do that?

How to buy nontoxic cookware

If Teflon products were the only way to cook food, fine, I get it.

You would have to use Teflon to eat.

But that is not the case.

As my recent Target visit proves, it is really easy to choose a Teflon alternative. In fact, it’s really easy to choose an affordable Teflon alternative. Below, I will run through some popular options on Amazon and weigh the pros and cons of each. Note, these links are affiliate links. We fund research for this blog, in part, with a small trickle of affiliate revenue.

In the analysis that follows, I will rely heavily on this resource from the government of Canada which discusses the pros and cons of many different types of cooking surfaces. Of note, some sources claim that certain types of cookware, such as iron skillets, leach healthy mineral content into food, so the analysis above of PTFE treated surfaces can cut both ways.

Cuisinart Stainless Steel

Good old fashioned stainless steel is never a bad option. I think the pan I bought from Target cost me about $20, and is a stainless steel reinforced with copper, oven safe to 500 degrees. This is significant because Teflon products emit toxic vapors at 350 degrees and most aluminum pots and pans aren’t safe above 400 degrees. I found this Cuisinart set of stainless pots and pans for a reasonable price on Amazon and included it in the list. I like Cuisinart, because to my knowledge, they have moved entirely away from PTFE products. Their nonstick cookware uses a Titanium reinforced cooking surface called Quantanium®. Now, I am not here to vouch for the purity of titanium as a cooking surface, but I do appreciate a move away from Teflon, a surface that doesn’t make sense to use for cooking food.

An added benefit of stainless steel cookware is that small amounts of iron and nickel make their way into the food, which can be beneficial for some people, especially vegans and vegetarians, or anyone who is iron deficient. (R)

Lodge Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet

This is one of my favorite kitchen items. It’s affordable, practical and makes me feel as close to a “real chef” as I ever will, which isn’t all that close. Lodge “pre-seasons” the skillet, but with soy and vegetable oils, not synthetic chemicals. Cast iron skillets aren’t meant to be washed with soap, so over time they develop their own non-stick coating that adds to the flavor of the foods you cook. This skillet is also a great option for baking, such as when you need to finish off some fish or a chicken breast in the oven.

An iron skillet contains the same benefits as stainless steel, by adding small trace amounts of minerals to food.

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps the biggest issue I have with Teflon is this: we know it releases toxic vapor when exposed to very high heat. We can’t be 100% sure that none of the PTFE chemicals leach into our food, especially over time, so why take the risk, even if the risk is very small?

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1 Comment

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  1. K says:

    This Blog is not accurately reporting things, so be fore warned. Having been a Ballarini rep for many years, I can assure you Ballarini Parma is PFOA/Teflon free and has been since the late 1990s when Teflon was banned in Italy (first country to do so) – and hasnt had it in thie cookware. Ballarini uses Granatium – a safe non toxic three-layer composite of Granite, Titanium, and Ceramic.

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