How to Keep Questionable Chemicals Out of Your Holiday Cooking

It’s prime season for cooking and baking. Don’t let toxic pots and pans spoil the festivities.

By Emily Main

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Stock up on cookware made without toxic chemicals (they make great gifts, too).There's no holiday that focuses more on food than Thanksgiving. While most of the attention goes to turkeys and the eternal cranberry sauce debate, you might want to 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., clinical assistant professor at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine and a general-practice physician.

So as you're gearing up for the biggest food holiday of the year—or if you're planning major meals for the December festivities and beyond—make sure you've got the right tools for preparing it.

What to Avoid

Nonstick Pans: Nonstick cookware is risky business. Sold under trade names like Teflon, Excaliber, and Silverstone, 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 Dr. Feister, "so it's basically Teflon." He adds that PTFE coatings have been found to emit six different toxic chemicals and have even been known to trigger something called "Teflon flu," characterized by headaches, backaches, and chills, when the pans are heated to a mere 100°F to 104°F. PTFE-based coatings emit ultrafine particulates when heated to 464°F (when frying meat, a pan can reach anywhere from 400°F to 470°F), and PFOA is released when the pans reach 680°F. Getting your pan that hot is easier than you think. Dr. Feister notes that tests by Dupont, which manufactures Teflon, have found that a pan preheated for 3 minutes and 20 seconds can reach 736°F.

PTFE-based nonstick coatings are sold under a number of brand names besides those mentioned above, so avoid anything advertised as Fluron, Supra, Greblon, Xylon, Duracote, Resistal, Autograph, Unison, Swiss Diamond, and T-Fal. This includes cookware as well as small appliances like toaster ovens.

Anodized Aluminum: Another material on Dr. 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, he says. "Some studies have shown that it does cause cancer in estrogen receptors in human breast tissue," he adds. In cookware, it 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, he says. "That essentially causes controlled rusting," he adds, which 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." And if that's not enough, now Calphalon, the leading manufacturer of anodized cookware, has started adding PTFE to its coatings. It's unlikely that you'll find aluminum pots and pans that aren't anodized unless you frequent antique shops, but nonanodized aluminum cookie sheets are very common (more on those a little later).
 

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