People around the world use nonstick pots and pans for their everyday cooking.
The nonstick coating is perfect for flipping pancakes, turning sausages and frying eggs. It can be useful for cooking delicate foods that might otherwise stick to the pan.
But there’s controversy around nonstick coatings, such as Teflon.
Some sources claim they’re harmful and linked to health conditions such as cancer, while others insist that cooking with nonstick cookware is completely safe.
This article takes a detailed look at nonstick cookware, its health effects and whether or not it is safe to cook with.
What Is Nonstick Cookware?
Nonstick cookware, such as frypans and saucepans, has been coated with a material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), commonly known as Teflon.
Teflon is a synthetic chemical made up of carbon and fluorine atoms.
It was first made in the 1930s, and provides a nonreactive, nonstick and almost frictionless surface ().
The nonstick surface makes Teflon-coated cookware convenient to use and easy to clean. It also requires little oil or butter, making it a healthy way to cook and fry food.
Teflon has a number of other applications. It is also used to make wire and cable coatings, fabric and carpet protectors, and waterproof fabrics for outdoor clothing such as raincoats (, ).
However, over the past decade, the safety of nonstick cookware has been under investigation.
The concerns have centered on a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which was previously used to produce nonstick cookware, but isn’t used today.
The investigations have also looked into the risks associated with overheating Teflon.
Summary: Nonstick cookware is coated with a material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon. The safety of nonstick cookware has been under investigation for the past decade.
Teflon and PFOA Exposure
Today, all Teflon products are PFOA-free. Therefore, the health effects of PFOA exposure are no longer a cause for concern.
However, PFOA was used in the production of Teflon until 2013.
While most of the PFOA on pots was normally burnt off at high temperatures during the manufacturing process, a small amount remained in the final product (, ).
Despite this, research has found that Teflon cookware is not a significant source of PFOA exposure (, ).
PFOA has been linked to a number of health conditions, including thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease and testicular cancer. It has also been linked to infertility and low birth weight (, , , , , ).
What’s more, it was found in the blood of more than 98% of people who took part in the US 1999–2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) ().
The PFOA Stewardship Program, launched in 2006 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), spurred the elimination of PFOA from Teflon products ().
This program involved eight leading PFOA companies, including the maker of Teflon, and it aimed to reduce the health and environmental risks associated with PFOA exposure by eliminating PFOA use and emissions by the year 2015.
All companies met the program targets, so all Teflon products, including nonstick cookware, have been PFOA-free since 2013 ().
Summary: PFOA is a chemical that was previously used to manufacture Teflon. It has been linked to health conditions such as kidney and liver disease. However, all Teflon products have been PFOA-free since 2013.
Dangers of Overheating
Generally speaking, Teflon is a safe and stable compound.
However, at temperatures above 570°F (300°C), Teflon coatings on nonstick cookware start to break down, releasing toxic chemicals into the air ().
Inhaling these fumes may lead to polymer fume fever, also known as the Teflon flu.
Polymer fume fever consists of temporary, flu-like symptoms such as chills, fever, headache and body aches. The onset occurs after 4–10 hours of exposure, and the condition usually resolves within 12–48 hours (, , ).
A small number of case studies have also reported more serious side effects of exposure to overheated Teflon, including lung damage (, , , ).
However, in all of the reported cases, individuals were exposed to fumes from overcooked Teflon cookware at extreme temperatures of at least 730°F (390°C), and were exposed for extended periods of at least four hours (, , ).
While the health effects of overheated Teflon may be serious, using common-sense cooking practices will help you avoid exposure.
Summary: Above 570°F (300°C), Teflon coatings may begin to break down, releasing toxic fumes into the air. These fumes can cause temporary, flu-like symptoms known as polymer fume fever.
Tips to Minimize Your Risk When Cooking
If you follow basic safety precautions, cooking with nonstick cookware is safe, healthy and convenient.
You can minimize your risk when cooking by following these tips:
- Don’t preheat an empty pan: Empty pans can reach high temperatures within minutes, potentially causing the release of polymer fumes. Make sure you have some food or liquid in pots and pans before you preheat.
- Avoid cooking on high heat: Cook on medium or low heat and avoid broiling, since this cooking technique requires temperatures above those recommended for nonstick cookware.
- Ventilate your kitchen: When you’re cooking, turn on your exhaust fan or open up windows to help clear any fumes.
- Use wooden, silicone or plastic utensils: Metal utensils can lead to scuffs and scratches on the nonstick surface, reducing the life of your cookware.
- Hand wash: Gently wash pots and pans with a sponge and soapy, warm water. Avoid using steel wool or scouring pads, since they can scratch the surface.
- Replace old cookware: When Teflon coatings start to visibly deteriorate with excessive scratches, peeling, flaking and chipping, they are ready to be replaced.
Summary: There are a number of ways to reduce your risk when cooking with nonstick cookware, including cooking on low-to-medium heat, using ventilation and taking care of your cookware.
Alternatives to Nonstick Cookware
Modern nonstick cookware is generally considered safe.
However, if you’re still concerned about any of the potential health effects, you can try an alternative.
Here are some great Teflon-free alternatives:
- Stainless steel: Stainless steel is excellent for sautéing and browning food. It is durable and scratch-resistant. It’s also dishwasher safe, making it easy to clean.
- Cast-iron cookware: When it’s seasoned properly, cast iron is naturally nonstick. It also lasts a long time and can withstand temperatures well above those considered safe for nonstick pots and pans.
- Stoneware: Stoneware has been used for thousands of years. It heats evenly and is nonstick when seasoned. It is also scratch-resistant and can be heated to very high temperatures.
- Ceramic cookware: Ceramic cookware is a relatively new product. It has excellent nonstick properties, but the coating can be easily scratched.
- Silicone cookware: Silicone is a synthetic rubber that is mainly used in bakeware and kitchen utensils. It does not stand up well to direct heat, so it’s best suited for baking.
Summary: Most modern nonstick cookware is safe if you use it correctly. You can also choose from a number of nonstick alternatives, including cast iron, ceramic and stainless steel cookware.
The Bottom Line
Nonstick cookware is found in many kitchens worldwide.
The nonstick coating is made from a chemical called PTFE, also known as Teflon, which makes cooking and washing up fast and easy.
Health agencies have raised concerns about the compound PFOA, which was previously used to make Teflon. However, Teflon has been PFOA-free since 2013.
Today’s nonstick and Teflon cookware is completely safe for normal home cooking, as long as temperatures do not exceed 570°F (300°C).
So you can use your nonstick cookware on the stovetop at low-to-medium heat, but don’t use it at maximum heat, or for hotter cooking methods like broiling.
At the end of the day, Teflon cookware is a healthy and convenient way to cook your food that is safe for everyday use.