Is non stick cookware going to give me cancer in 25 years?
March 22, 2009 10:08 AM   Subscribe

What are the dangers and benefits of non stick cookware (teflon/generic teflon type)? It's obviously healthier to cook without using lots of oil, but I've heard rumors of health problems such as cancer being linked to long term use of non stick pans.

I have some non stick pots and pans which are getting older. They have gradually shed small bits of their surface into food. This isn't enough to notice in any particular dish but I can tell that a pan which has been used for 3, 4 or more years doesn't have as much non stick surface on it as it used to.

The alternative is to use stainless steel pots and pans but this will require using a larger quantity of oil.

Is there any scientific documentation on the risk/reward of using non stick cookware versus the well-documented heart-disease risks of using more oil? Assuming that oil is extra-light canola oil or olive oil, not the cheap stuff...
posted by thewalrus to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Um, I'm pretty sure there isn't a "well documented heart disease risk" from vegetable oil alone. Yes, it's generally better to cut fat from your diet where you can, but olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. It actually boosts good cholesterol levels, so I wouldn't make your decision just over worrying about adding an extra two tablespoons of it to your pan.
I don't entirely trust Teflon myself, but so far it's only been conclusively shown to be toxic to birds.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:16 AM on March 22, 2009

Not to mention, using regular pans generally means your sautes taste better. (Because non-stick doesn't create a crusty brown fond.)

I would think flakes of teflon are more worrisome than a little vegetable oil.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:20 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I understand it's the manufacturing process of teflon that can be cancer causing, not the teflon itself. I'm pretty sure it works so well as non-stick because it's completely unreactive, which I assume would happen in your body too.

Anyway here's a link to read from someone more knowledgeable than me.
posted by sanka at 10:25 AM on March 22, 2009

Non-stick cookware should be replaced if the coating starts to flake. Always.

Lighter oils like olive and canola oil are not bad for you, if used in moderation. Unless you're submerging your food in oil, you shouldn't worry. Also, not breading things reduces the amount of oil that gets absorbed into your food.

In general, IMO, you'll be a better cook if you learn to cook with a straight-up stainless steel/aluminum core pan. A non-stick pan can't be used at as high a heat (much more dangerous than flaking, as teflon releases noxious chemicals at these temps), which is what you need to get a good brown on your food. Metal pans heat more quickly, and give you more control over the temperature. Basically, any kind of meat will cook much beater in a metal pan.

Non-stick is better for things like eggs and delicate vegetables (like spinach and other leafy greens), where not sticking is more important than high heat.
posted by mkultra at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2009

I don't really know if teflon pans are safe to use in general, but the rule is that if a non-stick pan is shedding the non-stick coating, you should stop using the pan and replace it.
posted by fructose at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2009

Stainless steel isn't the only alternative. Try cast iron - once seasoned, it becomes virtually nonstick.
posted by susanvance at 10:34 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The only thing I use non-stick for is eggs. Everything else goes in stainless steel or cast iron. It tastes better that way, too.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 10:35 AM on March 22, 2009

If your teflon is flaking, it's time to replace it, certainly. Other than that, the only danger with (new, smooth, non flaking) teflon is when it is allowed to get very, very hot when the pan is empty and dry. Then it releases a gas which has been proven to be toxic to birds. As far as I know, there isn't proof that the gas is necessarily bad for humans or that it is easy to release in the course of regular cooking. Again, I may be wrong, but from what I've read I got the impression that the teflon thing was a truth that got wrapped up in a fair bit of hysteria and rumor mongering. YMMV though.

I much prefer to cook in stainless steel cookware for the superior browning and pan sauce potential. I generally keep one (cheap and replaced as soon as it flakes) nonstick pan for eggs and very fragile foods. Lately, though I'm cooking eggs and oodles of other things in my well seasoned cast iron pan. It's heavy and a little, well, odd to care for, but browns beautifully and nothing sticks to it at all, so that might be something that's worth looking into.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2009

Oh, and here's a pretty good rundown of the health risks of nonstick cookware, and also how to cook without it.
posted by susanvance at 10:40 AM on March 22, 2009

The only thing I use non-stick for is eggs. Everything else goes in stainless steel or cast iron. It tastes better that way, too.

Yes, exactly. This should be your rule of thumb. You also should read up a little more on cooking oils - you seem to have some misconceptions. (Beyond the oil=toxic thing, you shouldn't cook with expensive olive oils. It's a terrible waste, because the volatile compounds that make a pricey oil taste good are cooked away when heated.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:14 AM on March 22, 2009

I, uh, once fell asleep while a large pot of water was slowly simmering on the stove. (It was wintertime . . I don't have a humidifier . . I didn't expect to fall asleep at 8pm.) I woke up after several hours, realized what must have happened, and ran into the kitchen. It looked like the stove had burned right through the nonstick coating on the awesome pot. I snapped off the heat, verrry carefully got potholders, and took it to the sink and put a tiny bit of warm water into the pan to start to cool it down. Then there was a TOXIC CLOUD OF CHEMICAL EVERYTHING -- not like a "ugh, this smells bad" but like a "ohmygod I'm going to die I'm about to drop this 500-degree pot on my foot MAKE IT ALL STOP" and I put down the pot and ran away. I opened the windows and dragged in the boxfan and I think I even put on a dustmask or something because the toxic cloud of chemical everything was now everywhere. I ran back and took the pot outside to the deck and left it there. Then I went back inside and panicked a little bit because my house didn't actually burn down, but it was now full of horrible toxic cloud.

So please replace your damaged nonstick pans with new ones, or another kind of pan, or something -- but whatever your decision, just make sure you avoid my unfortunate scenario. On preview: well, I guess I can vouch for horrible bird-killing fumes being a reality. The stove was on the lowest setting, but the pot had obviously been burning for hours.
posted by oldtimey at 11:17 AM on March 22, 2009

Seconding mostlymartha about the hysteria. I also keep a few nonstick pans for utterly incorrigible foods like eggs and really cheesy dishes, and use plain stainless steel for most things. (I don't like cast iron because it's so damn heavy, plus I can never keep the patina - I seem to scrub it off every time I clean it. I've even destroyed the patina on a heavily seasoned skillet that belonged to my grandmother - we're talking literally decades of seasoning here, and I'm not a particularly energetic pot-scrubber.)

For what it's worth, stainless steel seems less stick-prone these days. Maybe my cooking style has changed, I dunno, but I don't have problems with stuff sticking like it did 30 years ago. I can't really explain it, other than confirmation bias, but that's my impression. I generally use 2 - 4 T of oil, depending on the quantity of food in the pot, which seems like a reasonable healthy amount; if stuff starts sticking slightly I deglaze the pan with a little water or wine before it gets out of control. Maybe that's the secret?
posted by Quietgal at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2009

I use my non-stick pan for eggs and as a second pan when my stainless steel pan is in use. A well-seasoned cast iron pan is damn close to perfectly non-stick, but even so, egg dishes can be a challenge in anything but non-stick.

So if you do use teflon, put oil or liquid in the pan BEFORE you turn it on, and replace it when it starts looking scuffed.

But keep in mind that a lot of sticking in stainless steel pans is due to improper techniques, not the nature of the material. Meat can be browned in a moderate amount of oil without sticking if you let the meat brown on the bottom long enough so that it allows itself to be turned easily. If meat resists being turned in a pan, you don't need to struggle or add more oil: just wait a little longer, turning down the heat a little if necessary.

I cook beef, pork and chicken in a stainless steel pan with 1-2 tablespoons of neutral oil (regular olive oil or canola, as extra virgin olive oil isn't suited for searing). I take the meat out of the fridge about 15 minutes before I start cooking so that icy-cold meat doesn't hit the hot pan, heat the oil, add the meat, and LET IT SIT. I usually put the lid on, reducing the heat to medium, and find that the trapped moisture also prevents burning as long as the heat isn't too high. After 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the meat, remove the lid and you will find that the meat turns easily. Let it finish browning/cooking, putting the lid back to avoid spatter on your stove.

Pork tenderloin in mustard sauce (you can use yogurt instead of cream, and I usually use equal portions of mustard and dairy rather than the larger amounts listed), which always works perfectly in a stainless steel pan.
posted by maudlin at 12:43 PM on March 22, 2009

Unless you do what oldtimey did, nonstick pans are perfectly safe. Even flakes of teflon are inert, if unappealing; it's dangerous only when vaporized.

That said, they're not really necessary most of the time, either, and are kind of easy to damage (especially if you use metal cooking utensils.) If you do your sauteeing at a higher temperature you can get away with a lot less oil without the food sticking.

I can never keep the patina - I seem to scrub it off every time I clean it.
Slight derail, but never scrub a seasoned pan! You don't really even want to put it in water, unless you've burned something in the pan and need to start over. Heat the pan, wipe off any residue, heat it some more, wipe on a very thin layer of oil, heat it some more until the oil layer hardens. The first few times you do this with a new pan (or with one you've scrubbed to death) you might want to repeat a few layers, but after a while this becomes unnecessary. (If the idea of putting a pan away without it ever touching soap or water squicks you out, think about the temperatures involved. A seasoned pan is a lot better sterilized than something you wipe dry with a damp dishrag...)
posted by ook at 12:45 PM on March 22, 2009

As I understand it, we know that teflon sublimates (or breaks down into something that sublimates... I don't remember now) at temperatures easily reachable on a stove, and that those fumes are very bad for you. Last I was looking into it, we know very little about long term use of teflon if it's used properly.

The other problem is that it's not often used properly. If your teflon if flaking, then you've been overheating it and releasing those fumey fumes.

Cast iron and stainless work just as well, and a well seasoned cast iron skillet makes you much cooler to the right kind of cool people, Ben Stiller movies notwithstanding.
posted by cmoj at 1:18 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a mix of teflon and enamel-coated cast iron. Teflon coated pieces should last longer than 3 or 4 years. If you have any pieces that are still good, you can extend their life by never using metal in them; wooden forks and plastic spatulas are the way to go. Enamel-coated cast iron is almost as non-stick as teflon, and lasts forever, especially Le Cruecet (I have some from the '70s that belonged to my mom.) The pieces that're white inside seems to be a bit more non-stick than the black ones.
posted by zinfandel at 3:47 PM on March 22, 2009

If you're really worried about it, there are non-stick pans appearing on the market that use a ceramic coating instead of teflon. I've got a couple of them and so far they're working at least as well as the teflon stuff did.
posted by FishBike at 5:20 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Teflon is not a safe, harmless or inert compound. I read a UK paper that analyzed factory workers and cancer rates, I recall the teflon factory workers having 2-4x increased risk of a few types of cancer. DuPont has also paid out claims to workers with birth defects who work in their teflon factories.

The interesting question is: is the teflon exposure from regular cooking on a high quality pan significant in it's impact upon your health? Unfortunatley there is no good long term research on the subject so we can only speculate. With high levels of chronic exposure correlating with prostate cancer and birth defects, and no good long term saftey data I've decided against cooking with it. Oh and from what I recall depending on the paper you read the teflon on your cookware starts to vaporize at anywhere from 200-600 degrees.

The idea that oil consumption correlates with heart disease is antiquated. It is now clear that the type of oil you consume and how it is handled is what determines it's relative health benefits. What you should be interested in is the heat tolerence and smoke point of the oil you're cooking with, once you bring an oil above a certain temperature the fatty acids begin to change, often into unhealthy forms. Breakdown on wikipedia. Generally, the other thing to look for in a cooking oil is a high omega-3 fatty acid content, as it seems we eat far fewer omega-3 fatty acids than are optimal.
posted by zentrification at 6:47 PM on March 22, 2009

Lodge sells pre-seasoned cast iron pans if you're a lazy cook like me. Most of my cookware is stainless steel but I use a Lodge skillet for eggs. They never stick.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 1:01 PM on March 23, 2009

What I was told was that so long as you didn't use the teflon coated pan on high heat AND empty, there's nothing to worry about with the gas. But always replace teflon pans with flaking or scrapes.

The oil issue I think you're confusing with the issues around acrylamide. And that's a separate issue mainly around how starchy foods break down under high heat.
posted by dw at 3:49 PM on March 23, 2009

I've found these new Cuisinart ceramic Green Gourmet pans to be better than teflon in every way. They're very non-stick, durable enough for metal utensils, and can tolerate high heat. Plus they're not too expensive. I still only use them for eggs, fish, and pancakes.
posted by Caviar at 11:21 AM on March 25, 2009

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