I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood with lots of great restaurants that are “healthful.” I put that word in quotes because while organic French fries cooked in trans-fat free oil are better than what you’ll get at McDonald’s, they aren’t exactly kale chips.
So we try to cook at home most nights. My husband is actually much more of a chef than I am, so he is the one who purchases most of our pots and pans (and woks and stockpots and mandolins and 87 different knives…he loves kitchen gadgets!). As with many products in our home (from toilet paper to shampoo, Daylon is primarily worried about the performance of his cookware, and I am mainly worried about the safety.
Are There Toxins in Cookware?
Unfortunately, pots and pans might be introducing toxins into your food as you cook. The big takeaway from our research is that most types of cookware do infuse small amounts of material into our food. Some of those things are bad for us, some are good in the right quantity, and some are neutral.
And as much as we should avoid toxins in what we breathe and touch, we REALLY should avoid eating them! For this reason, many of you have asked about safe, non-toxic cookware.
I hope this guide helps you decide what cookware to eliminate, and what non-toxic cookware to buy when it’s time for new pots and pans.
(Please note: We will cover bakeware in a separate Safe Product Guide later this year. Stay tuned!)
Non-toxic Cookware: Types of Cookware
Pots and pans come in a wide range of materials. Part of the reason that this guide has been months in the making is that reviewing cookware for safety is complicated! Some cookware materials are okay, if you have the right variety, or if you don’t use them every day.
To simplify things, I’ve indicated by the color of the text if the material is always good (green), always bad (red), or more nuanced (orange) in my list below. Orange means that the material can be Good Stuff under certain circumstances, but caution should be exercised:
- Carbon steel
- Lava rock
- Porcelain enamel
- Tempered glass
- Cast iron
- Stainless steel
For more details on these materials, and the brands we like most (and which brands should be avoided), check out the Good, Bad, and Sneaky tabs here:
The Good Stuff
For most of human history, people suffered from iron deficiencies, so cooking with cast iron helped to prevent anemia. In modern cultures, the opposite is true. Most of us get plenty of iron, and there’s a point at which ingesting too much can be problematic. In our kitchen, we try to switch between cast iron pans and pans made of other materials (mostly stainless steel) throughout the week, and if you wanted to be extra cautious you could avoid cast iron for recipes with long cooking durations or acidic foods, as this will cause increased leaching.Our favorite cast iron pan is this one from Lodge, and it’s made in America.
Stainless steel pans are generally Good Stuff, but stainless steel is made with nickel. The more nickel in the mix, the more “stainless” it is. The problem is that our bodies can handle some nickel, but too much isn’t healthy. This means that high quality stainless steel cookware, which has higher percentages of nickel, is actually of more concern than lower quality stainless steel. We know that stainless steel pans do leach nickel (along with some chromium and iron), especially with longer cooking times and when cooking acidic foods such as tomatoes.
To minimize the potential for nickel leaching, you’d ideally want a pan that’s 18/4 or 18/0 stainless steel (that first number is the percentage of chromium; the second is nickel). This hard to find, so the best you can usually get is 18/8 and most of the ones we use are 18/10 (such as Calphalon and All-Clad, which we like for their American-made pots and pans).
I wouldn’t be concerned about using stainless steel as long as you just switch up your cookware, sometimes using cast iron and enamel pots and pans. If you’re still worried, you could avoid stainless steel when cooking something for long time periods.
You could also try this pot from Uniware, which is 18/8.
In essence, enamel is a form of glass. Enameled cookware is most often cast iron with an enamel coating. I feel that this type of cookware is completely non-toxic and wonderful to cook with. Some people have worried about lead in the enamel cookware, since the enamel coating is often made of clay, which can leach lead. For peace of mind, we got this lead test kit and tested the Le Creuset cookware in two of our homes. No lead was detected. I cannot vouch for other brands of porcelain enamel cookware, but feel good about Le Creuset! One caveat: Le Creuset says that there are trace amounts of lead on the outside of the bright-colored Le Creuset pots (such as red and orange). They add that “these levels are very low, but the interior enamel is completely free of lead.” I have the orange pot, and the outside still tested negative, as you can see below.
No lead was detected in our Le Creuset pots, inside or out.
In addtion to Le Creuset, I also like Staub, which hails from France as well.
True ceramic cookware is really great stuff. Unfortunately, there is some deceptive marketing around ceramic cookware. Most, including the big name brands (like Farberware and Calphalon) are coated with nonstick materials. We are only aware of one company that does it right, and that’s Xtrema.
Xtrema ceramic isn’t exactly like Teflon; it’s more “less-stick” than non-stick, but it’s worth getting used to!
Another upside to Xtrema pieces is that they are safe to use in the dishwasher, stove, and microwave and can be washed with steel wool.
For those of you who have asked about Dr. Mercola’s line of ceramic non-toxic cookware, it is Xtrema (with a private label!).
Crock Pots/Slow Cookers
Most crockpots/slow cookers contain a ceramic insert. There is a lot of debate about the possibility of lead leaching from the glazing on ceramic pots. In the U.S., all crockpots must pass FDA regulations for lead, but that still leaves the door ajar for small amounts of lead. Many slow cookers are manufactured in China and there is a general distrust for these products because it is difficult to know their practices.
The easiest way to detect lead is to purchase an inexpensive test kit.
One mom went to great lengths to know once and for all if her glazed crock pot might contain lead: The Skinny on Lead in Crock Pots. First she called several manufacturers and asked about lead in their glazing. Every one told her that there is no lead and their products comply with FDA rules. Not satisfied, she bought a wide variety of crockpots from a local thrift store. These included essentially all of the major manufacturers. She swabbed them with the test kit and found zero lead. She then took the crocks to a testing facility that uses a specific tool that is very sensitive to lead.
The results were that there was no lead found in any of the crocks. (I tested my own and had the same result.) So, if you’re a crockpot fan, we say it’s the Good Stuff!
All-Clad makes a really nice crock pot, but you can find others that are less expensive, too.
Carbon steel is sometimes used for frying pans and woks. It’s similar to cast iron, and can leach small amounts of iron into food, which is great if you happen to have someone with slight anemia in your home!
We like this carbon steel wok on Amazon:
Titanium is a non-toxic and biocompatible metal, so it’s used for medical instruments, dental implant devices, and joint replacements. Titanium is also lightweight and extremely strong. Titanium cookware uses an aluminum base for even heat transfer and distribution. The non-porous, non-stick titanium outer surface does not allow any aluminum to leach through.
The only reason to be cautious about titanium cookware is that it seems that most manufacturers now coat their titanium cookware with non-stick finishes, rendering it “Bad Stuff.” (See more on the problems with non-stick, below). I found one brand on Amazon, Health Pro that doesn’t appear to be coated with any non-stick chemicals.
Glass is probably the most inert of any cooking surface, and you can even get pots and pans made of this ultimate Good Stuff!
We like this set from Visions.
These unusual cooking surfaces have been used for thousands of years. Based on our research, lava rock appears to be entirely non-toxic. You might try this cooking platter made of lava rock.
What About GreenPan?
We originally called GreenPan Sneaky Stuff, because they don’t disclose exactly what they use in their nonstick cookware line. They’ve recently provided the results of independent tests, and these are hugely reassuring regarding contamination with heavy metals. Still, GreenPan’s nonstick coating is the proprietary Thermion, which is “made by a Sol-Gel process that results in forming a coating layer on the surface of the pan. This layer comprises mainly Silicon Dioxide (SiO2), which is the same composition as glass.” I suspect that it’s totally safe to use a GreenPan, but without all the information, I can’t call it Good Stuff.
The Bad Stuff
Believe it or not, you can actually get a plastic pot. Don’t buy one; all kinds of Bad Stuff—from phthalates to BPA to worse—leaches out of many types of plastic when heated. (You probably already know that you shouldn’t microwave food in plastic either, right?).
Various studies have linked elevated aluminum levels to everything from anemia and other blood disorders to ALS and Parkinson’s. Avoid all aluminum cookware. Note that pans with an aluminum core within cookware made of safer metals (such as stainless steel) are fine—you just want to make sure that no aluminum touches your food.
Like iron, copper is an essential mineral. A healthy diet supplies plenty of copper, but elevated levels of copper in your body can be toxic.
Many foods can react with unprotected copper cookware (where the food comes in direct contact with the copper) and leach too much copper into your food. Copper-core cookware is fine, though copper cookware that is “protected” with a coating of stainless steel is subject to the same concerns as stainless steel (see above, under The Good Stuff).
The debate about nonstick cookware has been raging for decades. You can read many reports claiming that Teflon is harmless, but the studies showing it to be toxic are far more convincing. The EPA told companies in 2015 to phase out some of the chemicals in their formulations due to health concerns, and the EWG advises consumers to avoid Teflon.
Most nonstick pans are aluminum coated with polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), otherwise known as Teflon. The big issue with Teflon isn’t ingesting it, but rather breathing it in when it gets hot (it’s actually toxic enough to kill pet birds!). Teflon-coated pans should be avoided.
And yes, even expensive, high-tech non-stick pans (such as Circulon) should be avoided.
If you want a good nonstick pan, check out this ceramic option.
The Sneaky Stuff
“Non-toxic” Nonstick Pans
Newer “safe” nonstick pans are increasingly available, but unless we’ve included them above, under The Good Stuff, we advise you to proceed with caution.
Any nonstick pan that says it’s “PFOA-Free” is really Sneaky, because no nonstick pans contain PFOA (it’s created during production but always burned off in the final product). Pans that specify that they are free of PFOA almost certainly contain PTFE. And even pans that are free of both often contain “proprietary” nonstick materials, which carry unknown risks.
Unglazed Clay Cookware (“Earthenware”)
Companies like Earthen Cookware and Vitaclay have gained in popularity because they contain no finish of any kind. However, the clay itself can provide a health risk, as it may contain harmful—albeit natural—things like aluminum, cadmium, and lead.
Without testing your pot for every possible contaminant, you have no way of knowing what might be leaching into your food—without a glaze on the pot, there is no protective barrier between what’s in the clay and your meal.
To me the risks of unglazed clay pots and pans outweigh the potential benefits of the good minerals that might leach into your food—calcium, iron, etc. While both Vitaclay and Miriams’s Earthen Cookware do provide testing showing their products free of specific heavy metals, the actual composition of the clay in both cases is “proprietary,” which is why I’m calling both of them Sneaky Stuff.
Under The Good Stuff tab, I mentioned ceramic cookware; just remember to avoid any ceramic pots and pans that are treated with nonstick materials, which includes brands like Caphalon and Farberware. As I said above, we are only aware of one company making safe ceramic cookware, and that’s Xtrema.
The Best Nontoxic Teakettle