The dazzling display of pots and pans in your cookware store is impressive, yet confusing. Staring at the cast iron, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, anodized aluminum, hard anodized aluminum, Teflon and the name brands all touting “non-stick” cooking, the choices boggle the mind. All you want is a saucepan or skillet in which the food won’t stick, that’s easy to clean and doesn’t affect your health. Hard anodized cookware was at the top of your list until you read about safety issues. The dangers of anodized cookware leaching aluminum into your food was enough to send you back to the cast iron your grandmother used, but even that caused health issues. Caution and care help make the decision for you.
How It All Began
Many discoveries are made by mistake. Take the case of Teflon, a non-stick coating that took the cooking world by storm. Discovered by accident in 1938, it wasn’t until 1956 that the first commercial cookware coated with Teflon was introduced to the public, under the name of “T-fal.” Its non-stick properties were heralded by home cooks and chefs everywhere, and the red circle in the center of the pans alerted them to when the pan was heated and ready.
But science didn’t stop with the invention. Disclaimers started to appear that the Teflon coating over aluminum was leaching dangerous chemicals into food. And that high temperatures created fumes. It was then that the war of the acronyms began.
PTFE or PFOA ‒ Which Is Worse?
Teflon is made with a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as PTFE. PTFE has a very high boiling point, making it ideal for high-heat cooking. It also resists water; a drop of water skitters across the bottom of the pan. It also has a non-stick surface. An overheated Teflon pan may emit fumes that can cause flu-like symptoms. However, no other health risks are associated with Teflon, according to the American Cancer Society.
Another man-made material is also used to coat aluminum pans. Known as perfluorooctanoic acid, more often referred to as PFOA, this coating has caused heads to turn when it comes to the dangers of chemically treating cookware.
Products made with PFOA have a high burn tolerance. They also resist water and are non-stick. The American Cancer Society declared that while Teflon itself doesn’t cause cancer, studies have shown the PFOA fumes can be dangerous. An arm of the World Health Organization known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
PFOA has been linked to kidney and thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, liver damage and cholesterol concerns. Studies continue, but warnings of toxic fumes caused consumers to turn to other processes that delivered non-stick surfaces.
If you’re buying Teflon, look for products without PFOA. Although PTFE does carry some danger, especially when the surface is scratched, it’s considerably less dangerous than PFOA.
Cautions When Using Teflon
We all probably have an old, dingy Teflon pan somewhere in our pot cupboard that we rely on when scrambling eggs. The non-stick surface may be dinged a bit, but it’s a workhorse, and you can’t bring yourself to trash it. Here are a few suggestions to prolong its life:
- Never leave the pan unattended over heat or an open flame. Overheating is what causes the fumes to escape.
- Use plastic or wood utensils, never metal.
- Keep stovetop and oven temperatures below 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Wash with non-abrasive cleansers, not the rough side of a sponge or steel wool.
- Wash by hand.
- Watch for scratches.
- Repair scratches with Teflon repair spray. Follow the directions precisely to return your Teflon to almost new.
Aluminum Pots and Pans
Watch the professional chefs on television, and you will see that most are using battered aluminum skillets to saute, flip and fabricate the dishes on their Michelin-starred menus. Aluminum, thin and light, heats quickly and responds to changes in temperature immediately. It’s also the third most abundant natural element, making aluminum cookware soft on the budget.
Unlike stainless steel and cast iron, aluminum cookware is lightweight, as you can see from those television chefs who toss ingredients high in the air with a flick of a wrist. But when chefs want to add a squirt of lemon to their sauce, aluminum pans lose their appeal.
Aluminum started getting a bad reputation when research found that aluminum in our diets was dangerous. It also discolored food. It doesn’t get along well with acidic foods such as tomatoes and anything citrus. These foods cause the aluminum to pit, and aluminum leaching into the food alters the flavor, giving it a metallic taste.
Thus, anodized aluminum came about.
The Science of Aluminum’s Toxicity
It was in the 1970s when a research team from Canada discovered high concentrations of aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But it wasn’t until 2007 that a newspaper in Idaho, the Idaho Observer, published a piece officially revealing the toxicity of aluminum, based especially on its ability to accumulate in the body’s tissues and brain.
Previous studies also linked aluminum to aspirin, makeup, factory dust, cheese and deodorants, among other products. There was no escaping the blame on aluminum as the increase in brain dysfunction escalated. But, were the studies accurate?
Lobbyists claim aluminum cookware is safe, stating the amount leached into food from the cookware is a mere 35 micrograms. That’s just for one dish made with one saucepan. Combine a day’s cooking along with environmental factors, and it’s more than likely you’re inhaling or eating more than 35 micrograms.
Debunking the Myth
As with all health alerts, aluminum cookware has suffered the battle of the pots and pans. Yes, it pits. Yes, it leaches into food. But the amount of aluminum ingested is minimal, not enough to issue a stage-4 warning.
Cook’s Illustrated magazine tested the theory by making tomato sauce in an aluminum saucepan and storing it overnight in the same pan. Tested in the morning, the amount of aluminum found in the cup of tomato sauce came to .0024 milligrams, while the amount of aluminum in one antacid tablet is 200 milligrams. Even their science editor claimed that in the medical community, the use of aluminum cookware posed no health threat.
While Teflon isn’t resistant to scratches, and it exposes the underlying aluminum to food, anodizing aluminum creates a layer of aluminum oxide on the surface. This scratch-resistant tempering of the aluminum, produced via an electro-chemical process, anodizes surfaces, creating a much thicker barrier between the aluminum and our food. Through chemical magic, a hard, non-porous surface is created.
Again, the skeptics were alerted. While anodizing is a step in the right direction, hard anodizing creates an even harder surface. The aluminum oxide is fused into the base metal, eliminating any chance of it peeling away or chipping. Almost as hard as a diamond, hard anodized aluminum is impervious to scratches.
It also stands up to wear and has a smooth surface. Manufacturers use a clear or black hard anodization, but other creative types are now going for colors.
But Is It Non-Stick?
Hard anodized pots and pans come in a non-stick variety, having been coated with a Teflon or Teflon-like coating. Even if it wears off, unlike Teflon over aluminum, Teflon over hard anodized aluminum won’t expose food to the ravages of aluminum. There are too many layers to penetrate, and the hard anodization makes it impervious to wear.
Cooking Safely With Anodized Aluminum
Scratched Teflon poses a danger. The aluminum underneath the Teflon leaches into food, and it’s tormented by acidic food. Anodized aluminum gives the saucepan an extra layer of protection from transmitting aluminum into your food, and hard anodized aluminum is even better. But cooking with hard anodized aluminum means adhering to some specific instructions.
- Heat your pan first. You’re closing whatever pores in the surface may be open.
- Then add cold oil.
- When it warms up, add your food. You’re closing the door on any dangerous leaching as you cook.
Caring for Anodized Aluminum Pans
Calphalon, the manufacturer of high-quality hard anodized cookware, is a stickler when it comes to caring for your cookware. There’s a reason it’s some of the higher priced cookware on the market, and they want you and your pots and pans to share a long life together.
- Allow your food to come up to room temperature. Cold food can stick.
- Preheat your pan before adding oil or food, and do not use aerosol oil or butter sprays.
- Use a medium heat. Good cooking means slower cooking.
- While the handles are heat-resistant, making them safe for stovetop-to-oven preparations, be cautious. Always have a potholder at hand to put over the handle.
- Keep a container of mustard handy for oven burns. It works!
Protect yourself and your family by following these safety tips:
- Only use wooden or plastic utensils in the pan, although Calphalon says any utensil can be used in their products.
- Wipe the pan immediately after use to remove any leftover morsels.
- Do not put the pan in the dishwasher. Hand wash and dry immediately.
- Don’t put a hot pan in a tub of cold water. Let it cool down first to avoid warping.
- Put a rubber separator between the pans if you are stacking them.
Buying Quality, Price, Safety
Always buy the best you can afford. A good set of pots and pans can last a lifetime if you invest time into research. Consider your cooking methods: the foods you like to cook, how often you use your cookware, and your expectations as to what the cookware can do for you. A highly experienced cook likes one-pot preparations. Saute. Simmer. Finish in the oven.
The best quality hard anodized aluminum cookware can run close to $700 for a 10-piece set, while a mid-priced set runs around $300 for an 11-piece set. Even less expensive is a massive set by T-fal for $91. Buying in sets saves money and gives consistency to your cooking style.
Be sure to check the limitations on your hard anodized aluminum sets. If you need stovetop-to-oven, the less expensive sets won’t work. If you want to put them in the dishwasher, the medium-priced sets won’t work. Take time to read the pros and cons of what you are investing in, knowing that whatever set you buy, you won’t be facing any dangers with hard anodized aluminum cookware.
- Chemours: History of Teflon
- American Cancer Society: Teflon and Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
- Arrow Cryogenics: Hard Coat Aluminum Anodizing
- Your Cookware Helper: Is Anodized Aluminum Cookware Considered Safe Cookware?
- NES: Teflon Vs PTFE… What Really Are The Differences?
- Made in Cookware: What Is PFOA and What Does It Have to Do with Cooking?
- Cook's Illustrated: Is Aluminum Cookware Safe?
- Calphalon: Use and Care
My seventh grade English teacher didn't realize what she was unleashing when she called me her "writer," but the word crept into my brain. I DID become a writer. Of advertising copy, dialogue and long-term story for several network soap operas, magazine articles and high-calorie contents for the cookbook: Cooking: It AIn't Rocket Science, a bestseller on Amazon! When I'm not writing, I'm cooking!