As I’ve mentioned before, our modern predators tend to be more invisible than visible. From contaminants in our air, food and water to the electromagnetic fields and microwave rays passing through our bodies daily, we are assaulted by the invisible. As we have addressed many of these issues elsewhere, today I will introduce a new foe.
We all are doing our best to eat well (at least the readers of such articles), but we may be sabotaging our own food with our choice of cookware. By now most of you have heard of the dangers of Teflon. I used to have a friend who fried everything in an old Teflon frying pan. I kept trying to warn him that since the outside coating was failing, that the cheap grade of pot-metal underneath could contaminate his food.
That was the least of his worries. At first the EWG (Environmental Working Group) reported that Teflon vapors, released by cooking on high heat, were killing pet birds. Then DuPont (the makers of Teflon) admitted that not only could it kill birds, but also their own workers would come down with “polymer fume fever” when exposed to the fumes, during manufacturing. Symptoms are flu-like and include aches, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting.
After that the floodgates opened and it was revealed that the synthetic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was linked to a variety of health problems, including organ toxicity, tumors and increased levels of prostate cancer in plant workers exposed to the substance. In 3 to 5 minutes of high heat a Teflon pan releases about 6 toxic gases, two of which are considered carcinogenic, one of which is considered deadly (MFA) and two more which are considered toxic pollutants globally.
Most of us are also aware of the dangers of using aluminum, due to it being a soft metal which easily leaches metal into foods cooked in it. In the health industry it has been believed for some time that aluminum is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, though you will find that debated (mostly by the aluminum industry). Especially bad are acidic foods such as applesauce, rhubarb, sauerkraut and tomatoes, which will cause the most leaching. One expert (Dr. A. McGuigan’s Report on Findings for the Federal Trade Commission) suggested that even vegetables cooked in aluminum produces hydroxide, which can neutralize digestive juices. This will inhibit digestive functions leading to the potential for ulcers and colitis, and other gastrointestinal problems.
Anodized aluminum results in a hardened surface of the cookware, sealing it and preventing any leaching into food. It is easy to clean, non-stick and scratch resistant. Yet, the main producer of this cookware, Calphalon, now says that all their products are sealed with a polymer, though technically it is not a “non-stick” surface. Since polymers are still a form of plastic we may run into the problem again with high temperature cooking.
The latest thing in non-stick cookware, which is looking like a safe option, is titanium based. Titanium is non-porous, durable and non-reactive to acidic foods, but not all titanium products are of the same caliber. The better products will not scratch, crack or warp, and nor will food stick to them. It appears that Germany makes some of the best ones, and some of the worst come from, you guessed it, China.
Authorities (in this case the Toxic Legacy Coalition) recommend that the safest choices for cookware are cast iron, enameled cast iron and stainless steel. When purchasing enameled cookware be sure that it has a white or cream-colored interior, since colored enamel may contain lead and cadmium. Technically, enameled coatings no longer contain lead, except in some slow cooking crock-pots, and cadmium is no longer used in pigments used for enameling. At least when made in countries with such restrictions, such as Europe and North America.
Earthenware clay pots are generally safe, if they too are not glazed with color, but you also want to make sure that they are made from lead-free clay. Such products will state on their labels that they contain “no cadmium or lead.” Avoid pottery made in Mexico or third world countries. Pottery made in the U.S. or Canada must meet safety guidelines for lead, and will have labels stating that it is “safe for food use.”
Using cast-iron cookware is believed by many (including the Macrobiotics) to add iron to foods that will be absorbed as a nutrient by the body. The medical community would disagree maintaining that the ferric form of iron found in the cast iron is not absorbable by humans. Their position is that only iron in the ferrous form will assimilate. However, in 1986 the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association published a study in which researchers compared a variety of foods before and after being cooked in a new, seasoned iron skillet.
For controls they also cooked the food in Corning Ware, and an older iron pan. They found that cooking in an iron pan greatly increased the iron content of many foods, with acidic foods absorbing the most iron. Applesauce (100gr) increased from 0.35 mg of iron to 7.3 mg and tomato sauce (100gr) increased from 0.6 mg to 5.7 mg. Also, the newer iron pan added more iron to foods than the older, used one. Foods with short cooking times, that are not stirred or flipped much, did not absorb much iron at all.
While many people are leery of iron due to its possible link to heart disease, I would like to point out that this fear is based on one study done with heavy meat eaters, perhaps the only group that tends to have excessive iron stores in the body (outside of those with the disease hemochromatosis).
Since cast iron is porous we “season” it with hot oil, and make a point of not washing it in soapy water, in order to prevent rusting from occurring. Seasoning of cast iron is done by rubbing the inside of the pan with vegetable oil or lard and heating in the oven at 300 degrees for one hour. This fills in the pores of the metal preventing sticking. Some believe that the oils in the metal then just go rancid, which would clearly not of great benefit to our health. Fortunately now we have a good saturated fat to cook with that is stable under high heat, and not prone to rancidity. This is coconut oil and would appear to be the best choice to season cast iron with.
Generally, glass and Pyrex are considered to be safe cookware, though food tends to stick and burn more, due to poor heat distribution.
The preferred choice of the Weston Price Foundation is magnetic stainless steel because it does not contain nickel. Stainless steel comes in many different grades, and the cheaper grades are made from many different alloys. These include nickel and chrome, which are now believed to bleed into foods when they react with the salts and acids of the foods cooked in them. In order to avoid this do not allow acidic or salty foods to remain in the steel cookware for long periods of time.
Nickel is a trace element that is becoming a heavy metal due to being excessively available in the environment. Nickel is found in tobacco smoke, vegetable shortenings and pesticide residue. But it may be that its increase is due to its prevalence in cheap Chinese stainless steel. Nickel appears to accumulate in the prostate gland leading to chronic prostatitis. Prostatitis is a painful condition caused by bacterial infection. It now appears that bacteria thrive on nickel.
As a related aside, treatment for chronic prostatitis has now incorporated the amino acid L-Histidine (at 500 to 1500mg daily). This amino acid seems to bind to nickel and chelate it out of the body through the urine, though it can take many months before this is accomplished.
Stainless steel then, should be of the highest-grade surgical stainless steel, which is known as 316L and is the grade mandated for use by the dairy and pharmaceutical industries. 304 is another designation for high end steel. The old terminology for surgical stainless steel was 18/10, meaning that the chromium level is between 16 and 18%, and the nickel content is between 10 and 15%. This designation is still often used on cookware. The 18/10 or “surgical” label needs to be on the inside of the cookware to ensure that your food is in contact with the least reactive form of steel. If it is only listed on the bottom of the pan it does not necessarily have to be on the inside.
The label 18/0 is magnetic (and contains no nickel) and is often found on the outside of the cookware. Because the 18/10 grade is not very magnetic it does not work for “induction” cooking, unlike the 18/0 grade. Induction cooking is a new form of flameless cooking that is currently expensive and uncommon. It can only be done with magnetic materials, and as it grows in popularity so will the availability of magnetic cookware.
A low-tech way of testing your cooking pots for metals leaching is as follows:
Add one cup of water to the pan you wish to test. Add one tablespoon of baking soda (which simulates a similar pH to cooking conditions). Boil the water for 5 to 10 minutes. Create a control for the taste test by adding one tablespoon of baking soda to a glass of the same water. Then taste the boiled water and compare to your control water. Supposedly that is the taste of the metals that are going into your food.
There are no easy answers any more. We’ve looked at some options and the pros and cons and now we make our choices, hopefully as informed as possible. As with my approach to voting, the best we can usually do is choose the lesser of the evils. Or cook your food over a campfire, which is still not as ideal as one might think. The average East Indian peasant cooks and heats with wood and averages the equivalent of a pack-a-day of cigarettes in carbon particles, because they do so indoors. Remember that the Oriental approach to cooking and eating maintains that a sense of respect and gratitude empowers food and improves digestion. Whereas, performing these acts in states of anger or fear (worry) turns them to poison (or at the very least makes the food acidic and impedes digestion). In other words, your attitude is more important than your cookware.