This is a hard one, as I’m sure you can attest to if you have ever researched “safe cookware.” I have combed through third party testing reports, bloggers’ home testing reports, research, and reviews. My verdict: almost all cookware leaches something into your food; so, the safest cookware material for one may not be the safest for another.
I am going to spare you the numbers, results, and boring details. I am merely going to provide my conclusions on cookware after returning from that deep sea of information overload, which was at times contradicting – shocker! We will start with the bad stuff.
Materials to Avoid
Non-stick pans, in general, are not safe. Teflon, PFOA, and PTFE are all materials you don’t want to have in your cookware. Did you know that when Teflon is overheated, it produces fumes? These fumes have been shown to cause flu-like symptoms and cause the death of birds! I grew up with Teflon pans. My mother-in-law had a very hard time convincing me to go a different route, but I am super thankful I finally conceded.
I really did try to find at least one safe-ish pan that had a non-stick coating. No such luck. But, trust me when I say, you truly do not need the “non-stick” coating!
Aluminum is another no-no. This naturally-occurring substance is everywhere and in everything (not literally but almost). Interestingly enough, our body has no need for it. Due to it’s size, it can compete with other essential elements, which in turn inhibits our body from using them. The main issue is that the scientists can’t agree on how much is too much. So, because it has no benefit to our body and we don’t know at what level it becomes toxic, I don’t recommend it’s use. That being said, some pans have an aluminum core, which is fine as the aluminum itself if not touching your food.
Ceramic-Coated Pans seem like they would be safer as the coating is made of a derivative from sand. However, there is still a question as to whether it releases titanium dioxide nano-particles, which are toxic and not typically included in third party testing. In addition, the reviews on this type of pan, including the higher-end brands, were mixed at best. In my opinion, too many consumers reported loss of the “non-stick” property or actual loss of the coating for this pan to be recommended. The latter complaint would be affiliated with a health risk if the core of the pan were aluminum and became exposed. So, if you do use ceramic-coated pans, you should definitely replace them when they become scratched, which could get pricey!
These pots and pans are a little better, but inconsistent. Based on different reports by consumers who had independent testing done on various pans, the results are too inconsistent to recommend this material. This is unfortunate because these pans are pretty! Some pans are fine, but others, not so much. Le Creuset is a popular brand, but these pans also demonstrated some inconsistencies. If you own a Le Creuset pan or are dead set on buying one, be sure it is made in France (not China). The pans made in France seem to leach less toxins when leaching did occur. Also, the pots that have a colorful exterior do have known low-level toxins in those external coatings. Lastly, I should mention, that Le Creuset made in France as well as Lodge enameled cookware both pass California Proposition 65 and thus would be the best brands to go with IF you must have this type of cookware.
Safest Cookware Material
Alright, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (or maybe some just scrolled straight through): what is the safest cookware material available today? If you can manage a completely glass cookware set-up, then that is absolutely the safest option available. However, you will see in the next paragraph that this is not doable for most people.
Glass is the safest cookware material. It does not leach chemicals, does not affect food taste, and does not retain odors from food. Did you know that glass can be recycled an infinite number of times?! It is healthy for you AND great for the environment! Y’all know I love win-wins 😀!
Borosilicate glass is my favorite type of glass as it is the most resistant to thermal shock breakage (it can go from the freezer to the oven safely). Soda Lime is another common type of glass used to in cookware. It is not as durable, but some say that when it does break, it breaks better – not so jaggy and sharp. Borosiliate glass is used by OXO, and soda lime glass is used by Pyrex and Anchor Hocking . So, an absolute recommendation is to get glass baking dishes, loaf pans, and pie pans. You can even get glass saucepans and skillets; however, they are very pricey and have a high risk of breaking. Honestly, they aren’t very practical for most. *Stay away from “vintage glass” – it can contain lead!
Stainless Steel cookware is a safe, durable, and a high-performance cookware option. Before you scroll down because you can see your eggs sticking to the pan, hear me out! As previously mentioned, about 10 years ago, I was a non-stick girl all the way. I know how easy they are to use and clean. Stainless steel pans, when used correctly, do not cause food to stick. I make omelets in them regularly! Omelets and I took awhile to get along in a non-stick pan; so, the fact that I can flip an omelet in a stainless steel pan means that anyone can do it! Residual food scrapes right off with some hot water and a brush or scraper. I’ve had my same set of stainless steel pans for 11 years, and they look like they did the day I received them! Unfortunately, my set is no longer available, but if I were buying one now, I would get this Calphalon 10-piece set. It is very similar to the one I have, and Calphalon is one of my favorite brands!
It is true that stainless steel pans leach tiny amounts of heavy metals. Nickel is the concern as it is not needed/used by the body and is known to cause cancer. However, studies have been done to determine the level of nickel that is tolerable by the body, that is, the level that is unlikely to pose any risk. When food cooked in stainless steel pans was tested for nickel, the amounts found within the food were far below the tolerable level. It was found that acidic foods and cooking at high temperatures did increase the nickel a smidge, but again, it was still well below the tolerable level. Thus, stainless steel is a safe cookware option for most people. The caveat is for people who have a known nickel sensitivity – you may want to opt for a nickel-free stainless steel cook set. I have not personally used a set without nickel and thus cannot speak to its functionality.
*Instant-Pots are a safe cooking option as their inserts are made of stainless steel. Whew, that’s a relief because I love that thing!
Cast Iron is also safe, durable, and non-stick! These pans do leach iron into food; however, iron is needed and usable by the body. Of course, you can get too much iron, which is why this is not a non-toxic option either. BUT, similar to the stainless steel pans, most people will not be over-exposed to iron through the use of cast-iron cookware. On the flip side, iron deficiency is fairly common, in which case cast-iron would actually be beneficial. If you are highly concerned about your iron level, you can ask your primary care physician to order a blood test to check it. This would help you determine if you might benefit from greater use of cast-iron cookware vs. needing to minimize cast-iron. Of note, long cook times and acidic foods did result in a little more iron ending up in the food.
Lodge is my favorite brand for cast-iron products because all products are manufactured in South Pittsburg, Tennessee at their expanded original foundry. I currently have a 6.5 in, 12 in, and the 8 in. griddle. I plan to get the combo cooker next for my brand new bread-making adventure!
Lastly, unglazed Stoneware is the safest option for baking sheets. Full disclosure, there is some concern regarding the natural occurring elements/metals in the clay used to make stoneware. This makes sense; HOWEVER, when you consider the other options for baking sheets, this is the least toxic option, in my opinion.
There are a couple guidelines I follow to ensure (as much as I can) that I am getting a high-quality product. First, only go with stoneware made with clay that is mined in the USA or another “clean-air” country. Second, it is best for the stoneware to actually be made in the USA for quality-control in the creation of each piece. Lastly, the stoneware should undergo third-party testing, specifically passing California Prop 65.
I am partial to Pampered Chef, to whom I reached out. They confirmed that they meet these 3 criteria. In their email, they did not provide me a list of everything they test for, but they did say, “we recently tested all of our Stoneware products…using certified, independent third party testing companies which test for several things, including lead…Stoneware products are well within federal and state regulations, including California Prop 65 and European Union Food Contact testing.” This is more than satisfactory for my safer standards of living.
In Case You’re Interested in the Why…
The other standard options for baking sheets are stainless steel and aluminum. Stainless steel should be safer, BUT, when used in the oven, these pans do not conduct heat uniformly. Not a problem if you’re mixing your food around as you cook it, but for something like cookies and cakes, this would be a huge problem. It is for this reason that a lot of stainless steel pans are dipped in aluminum, negating the health benefits.
Aluminum pans are preferred by professional bakers for their even-heating. But, they are certainly not non-toxic (scroll up to the top if you missed why aluminum is a material to avoid). If you have baking sheets made of one of these materials, cover the sheets with unbleached parchment until you can replace them with stone. Bonus, this paper can be purchased pre-cut for half-sheet size pans!
Soo, what is the safest cookware material?
The answer is a mixture of safer materials! First and foremost, get as much glass as possible. From a practical cookware standpoint, that typically consists of casserole dishes, pie pans, and loaf pans. I will do another post on all the amazing characteristics of glass, but until I do, I’ll add a little bonus tidbit in this post for your consideration: choose glass instead of plastic whenever possible! For example, you can easily replace plastic with glass for the following kitchen items: pitchers, measuring cups, storage containers, blenders, mixing bowls, straws, and mugs, to name a few 🙂
When it comes to skillets and saucepans, I’d do a mixture of stainless steel and cast iron. You could do stainless saucepans and cast iron skillets; or, you could get 1 of each in the two different materials. Keep in mind that acidic foods, high-temperature cooking, and long cook times will result in more leaching of elements. However, once again, studies have shown that the amount of nickel and iron, in stainless and cast iron respectively, leached during these scenarios, are unlikely to reach significant levels for people without sensitivities to these elements.
Unglazed stoneware mined and manufactured in the US is the safest option for baking sheets when cooking directly on the pan. Pampered Chef is my go to brand for these products.
Is it worth it?
If you do a lot of cooking at home, your cookware material choice is essential to reducing your toxic exposure. This is especially true if you’re using any sort of non-stick cookware. It is financial commitment, but thankfully all the safest options I listed are meant to last a lifetime and are very likely cheaper in the long run.
I have linked the pans I use (or their close counterparts) throughout this article. You can also head over to my new “What I’m Using” page for a list of links to specific cookware that I recommend. Some kitchen pieces, such as measuring cups and mixing bowls don’t warrant an entire post in and of themselves. My recommendations for these products are just listed/linked on the “What I’m Using” page. It is a page in progress that will be updated frequently!
I hope this was helpful! I’d love to hear in the comments what you are using and/or what you plan to change up in regards to cookware. You can also post questions or reviews of specific products you’re using for the rest of us. If anyone has used a nickel-free pan/pot, I’d love to know how it worked for you!