What type of cookware should I be using?

QUESTION: What type of cookware should I be using?

ANSWER: The pots, pans, and other containers you use in your kitchen for food preparation and storage should be as free of potential toxins as the food itself. When it comes to food, buying organic will do the trick. When it comes to pots and pans, there is no simple, two-word answer like “buy organic,” but there are some basic guidelines.

Cookware to Avoid

First, in spite of its convenience, light weight, and break-proof nature, plastic is not a good choice for your kitchen. Very small amounts of plastic pass from the container to the food, even at refrigerator temperatures, and even when foods are not acidic. Vinyl chloride, for example, has been shown to migrate from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) bottled drinking water into the water itself. The worst places to use plastic are in the microwave or in a pot of boiling water (for example, in the case of “boil-in-the-bag” foods). As a general rule, you are safest microwaving in unleaded ceramic or tempered glass containers (like Pyrex), but not in plastic, even if the plastic is a harder, polycarbonate variety (number 7 on the recycling logo). Storage of food in plastic is not as much a problem as cooking in plastic, but even in this situation, glass containers with plastic lids would be safer than containers made entirely of plastic.

On the stovetop, aluminum pots and pans are the equivalent of plastic in the microwave and should be avoided. Many anodized aluminum pans look more like stainless steel than aluminum, so check to be sure. You may need to contact the store, or the manufacturer in some cases, to determine exactly what materials your pot or pan contains.

The Best Choices in Cookware

Stainless steel and porcelain-coated pots are our first choices for stovetop cooking. Copper-bottomed pots or pots with a layer of copper in between the stainless steel are also fine. The problem with aluminum pots, like the problem with plastic microwave containers, involves migration of small amounts of aluminum from the pot into the food. Non-stick coatings are much better quality now and they do not migrate into foods like the old Teflon coatings. While stainless steel is our top choice for stovetop cooking, care also needs to be taken not to scour stainless steel pots too harshly when cleaning them. Once the surface of the stainless steel has been damaged, the pot will leak nickel into the food it contains.

Inside the oven, non-leaded ceramic, stainless steel, and tempered glass designed for oven use are all good choices.

Cast Iron, Good for Some, Not for Others

At the turn of the century, cast iron cookware was the most popular choice in U.S. households. This type of cookware is still an excellent choice, provided that no one in your household has excessive body stores of iron. While most U.S. adults have too little iron from their meals and would benefit from cooking in cast iron cookware, some individuals have excessive body stores of iron and would be at risk of iron overload problems when cooking in cast iron. In general, men who consume beef on a daily basis are most likely to be at risk for iron overload problems, but if you have any question about your iron levels, it’s best to consult with a healthcare practitioner who can evaluate your health status in this context.

Practical Tips

Choose your cookware from among the old-fashioned kitchen stand-bys - cast iron (under most circumstances), stainless steel, tempered glass, unleaded ceramic, porcelain and non-stick. All are still the best choices for cookware materials.

The most commonly used materials today - aluminum and plastic - can have detrimental effects on your health and should be avoided.

References

Benefenati E, Natangelo M, Davoli E et al. (1991). Migration of vinyl chloride into PVC-bottled drinking-water assessed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Food Chem Toxicol 29(2):131-134.

Gibson, R. S.; Donovan, U. M., and Heath, A. L. Dietary strategies to improve the iron and zinc nutriture of young women following a vegetarian diet. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1997; 51(1):1-16.

Kollipara, U. K. and Brittin, H. C. Increased iron content of some Indian foods due to cookware. J Am Diet Assoc. 1996 May; 96(5):508-10.

Muller JP, Steinegger A, and Schlatter C. (1993). Contribution of aluminum from packaging materials and cooking utensils to the daily aluminum intake. Z Lebensm Unters Forsch 197(4):332-341.

This page was updated on: 2004-11-18 21:37:56
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation