Unless you’ve deliberately avoided it, the chances are that you’ve cooked with aluminum in the past.
For many people, most of their cookware is made of aluminum, which is an amazing metal well suited to cooking.
Yet—is it safe? Or, perhaps more importantly, how can you make sure you are using it safely?
Why Cook With Aluminum?
Over 60% of the cookware used in America is made out of aluminum. With more than half of the people using aluminum for cooking, chances are a large proportion of your food is prepared in an aluminum pan.
There are benefits to cooking with aluminum. Firstly, it’s an excellent heat conductor—aluminum is 16 times more thermally conductive than stainless steel.
It is also the third most abundant element on earth, making it pretty cheap.
As if that isn’t enough, aluminum is lightweight, making it easy to maneuver hot aluminum pans full of food.
Yet, it’s not all gravy. There are some risks associated with Aluminum, and it’s time to explore them.
Dangers of Aluminum Cookware
Although Aluminum is an excellent material, it does have some negative aspects to it. Aluminum reacts with the acid in food, causing it to leach into your meal. This is why aluminum cookware is normally either anodized or coated with ceramic or a non-stick covering.
Aluminum can be ingested, absorbed, or inhaled by your body, and it may cause damage. Aluminum has been linked to lung damage and is poisonous to the brain and nervous system if absorbed in large quantities.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that aluminum is not easily absorbed into the body. They say that the amounts that we eat in food, whether naturally occurring, added, or leached in due to cookware, are not something most people need to be concerned about.
The CDC reported that of the aluminum that we consume, less than 1 percent makes it into our bloodstream, most of it is flushed out. People with kidney disease, however, should be cautious. They hold more aluminum in their body, and it has been linked to dementia, anemia, and bone disease.
There has also been evidence that links aluminum cookware and Alzheimers. More on this later!
Sources of Aluminum
Aluminum can come from more than just your cookware. It is a naturally occurring element in rocks, soil, and minerals. Here are some more examples of ways aluminum could find its way into your body.
From Your Food
The foods that you eat every day likely contain some amounts of aluminum. Many processed foods contain aluminum, but even naturally occurring fruits and vegetables can contain aluminum absorbed from the soil.
There are reports of it even being found in drinking water.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention believes the average person consumes between 7 and 9 milligrams each day of aluminum from food alone.
From Household Items
Many of the things we use every single day have levels of aluminum in them. Items such as antacid tablets can have 100 to 200 milligrams of aluminum in them. Here are some other everyday household products that may contain aluminum:
- Buffered Aspirin
- Nasal Spray
- Baking soda and powder
- Cake mix
- Processed cheese
- Soy-based baby formulas
Aluminum and Alzheimer’s
In 1965, scientists injected rabbits with high levels of aluminum and found that it caused toxic growths in their brains. This led to the idea that aluminum causes severe issues in humans.
However, the study results involved extremely high aluminum amounts that are far greater than the levels that typically enter the body through food or aluminum cookware.
No-one is suggesting injecting aluminum into humans!
Yet it raises the question—can aluminum ingested from food in smaller quantities over a long time affect the human brain?
Since the original rabbit research, there have been many studies on the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum. Although it is a highly debated, controversial topic, there is evidence supporting the idea that aluminum at high levels may play a role in Alzheimer’s.
One study suggests that “it is widely accepted that Aluminum is a recognized neurotoxin, and that it could cause cognitive deficiency and dementia when it enters the brain.” They acknowledge, though, that although there is growing evidence supporting their claim, it remains inconclusive.
Another study that looked at aluminum levels in the brain, serum, and cerebrospinal fluids of Alzheimer’s patients compared to a control group found that aluminum levels were significantly higher in those with Alzheimer’s. This also points to the possibility that aluminum can cause long-term neurological issues. But correlation isn’t causation, and while it is an indicator, it isn’t proof.
However, despite this, a systematic review of research into aluminum toxicity found:
“There is no consistent and convincing evidence to associate the aluminum found in food and drinking water at the doses and chemical forms presently consumed by people living in North America and Western Europe with increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).”
So what to think? Aluminum may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but it has not been proven. If you want to reduce the risk, consider minimizing your aluminum intake. Yet, be aware, it may not make a difference.
Ceramic Coated Aluminum Cookware
Ceramic coated aluminum cookware is an aluminum-based item that is covered in a layer of ceramic.
What is Ceramic?
Ceramic is an inorganic material, meaning something that doesn’t contain oxygen. It is primarily silicon and oxygen, so it’s the same composition as stone or rock. Ceramic is applied using a Sol-Gel process, which turns the material solution into a gel. Manufacturers spray the gel onto the metal, or the pan is dipped into it, then cured at very high heat.
Is Ceramic Coated Aluminum Cookware Safe?
Ceramic is a notably safe material. It can be heated very hot and not break down or emit toxic fumes, like Teflon coated pans. It is a game-changer when it comes to aluminum cookware safety. Ceramic is scratch-resistant, so the raw aluminum underneath will not be exposed to your food. However, it is advisable to use wood or silicone cooking utensils only, rather than metal, to prolong its life.
How Good is Ceramic Compared to Other Coatings?
Compared to other non-stick coatings, ceramic is both better and worse.
Ceramic is a healthy and environmentally-friendly choice. Using inorganic materials is better for the environment than other non-stick coatings, which is essential to me. The layer doesn’t break down and emit harmful fumes into the atmosphere, either.
However, Teflon coated pans are found to last six times as long as ceramic-coated pans. This is a huge difference! Although they can be healthier for you and better for the earth, they may not last as long as other pans.
In the end, it kind of depends on the pan, or more importantly, the ceramic. Some ceramic pans, even have Teflon in them!
Hard-Anodized Aluminum Cookware
Hard anodized aluminum cookware is a type of aluminum that has been treated in such a way as to cover the raw aluminum and prevent it from getting into your foods. If you want to understand aluminum cookware safety then you must understand hard anodized aluminum.
What is Anodization?
When aluminum is anodized, a chemical reaction occurs, and a layer of aluminum oxide forms on the surface of the raw aluminum. This layer coats the aluminum with a hard protective coating that keeps it from leaching into your food.
Cookware that has been anodized has gone through an electrochemical process called anodization. This is performed by placing the aluminum in an acid solution and adding an electric current to speed up the oxidation process, thereby making a thick coat of aluminum oxide on the surface.
Why Use Hard Anodized Aluminum?
Hard anodized is twice as strong as stainless steel. It’s scratch and corrosion resistant, and is non-reactive. These pans are incredibly durable and last a long time.
Is Anodized Aluminum Cookware Safe?
Anodized aluminum cookware is equally as conductive and light as aluminum, but it also has a tough, scratch-resistant coating.
Hard anodized cookware often has another inner layer, such as ceramic or non-stick. The hard anodized layer is safe on its own but it’s rare to see it uncovered, at least inside the pan. So another safety factor is what this inner layer is made of.
If aluminum pans do not have a ceramic coating, then they are most likely coated with a nonstick layer. Nonstick pans are convenient, easy to clean, and last a long time if they are taken care of. The most popular coating material is called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), most commonly known by its brand name, Teflon. Manufacturers achieve this coating by spraying layers of the chemical over the metal.
Is PTFE Safe?
Teflon is a non-reactive and inert substance when ingested. It is even a component in some joint replacement surgeries!
However, it does become harmful when it is heated. If the pan reaches temperatures about 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius), PTFE begins to release toxic fumes.
These fumes can cause sickness in humans, nicknamed the “Teflon flu.”It resembles the flu, including fever, sore throat, and body aches. Surprisingly, it is easier than you think to get a pan to 500 degrees.
Birds are particularly sensitive to these fumes and can die.
That said, most people don’t heat their pans anywhere near that high, nor do they keep their pet birds in the kitchen.
If cooking with a nonstick pan, always preheat your pan with extra virgin olive oil because the oil will begin to smoke well before 500 degrees.
Benefits of Nonstick Pans
Nonstick pans are excellent because you can cook food on them and not have to worry about a messy, burnt aftermath. Foods slide right off of the surface. Additionally, they last a long time and are incredibly durable. As long as you cook your food at normal heats, cooking with nonstick pans is safe.
Aluminum foil is very thin aluminum, so thin that you can fold it and wrap food in it. It’s super-convenient and easy to use.
But is it safe?
Cooking with Aluminum Foil
If you cook with aluminum foil, some of the metal will leach into your food, increasing aluminum levels in your food.
So if you want to reduce your food’s aluminum content, try not to use aluminum foil when cooking. At the very least, minimize the times when you heat food while in contact with the foil. (Using it to cover a bowl you are heating, without touching food, is less risky).
Avoid cooking with aluminum foil at high heats. The higher the temperature, the higher the chance of chemicals interacting, and of aluminum leaching into your food.
Using Aluminum foil to store food
Aluminum foil is much more likely to react with food at high temperatures. So using it to store food is much less risky.
Yet time is also a factor here. I would suggest using aluminum foil to wrap food for a few hours (like wrapping your sandwiches for work or school), but not for long term storage.
Aluminum foil and acidic foods
Acids react with metals. It’s kind of their defining characteristic! That doesn’t mean that every acid will immediately dissolve every metal, but acidic foods are more likely to interact with Aluminum.
When you use aluminum, especially if cooking, make sure to avoid acidic foods, like:
- Citrus fruits
The Wrong Side
When you cook with aluminum foil make sure you cook with the shiny side facing out. Not wait, shiny side touching the food! Hang on…
You’ve probably heard contradictory advice about whether the shiny side should face in or out, and which side can touch the food.
Guess what? It doesn’t matter!
The difference in shininess is just a function of how the aluminum is rolled in the machines. Even the manufacturer says it makes no difference.
(The only exception is for non-stick foil–in that case the dull side should be touching the food as it’s the non-stick part.)
Safe Cooking with Aluminum
If you have a cupboard full of aluminum pans, you don’t need to throw them out! There are things that you can do to increase your aluminum cooking safety.
The amount of metal that could leach from your aluminum cookware varies. It depends on the type of food you are cooking; for example, tomato sauce has high acidic levels, so it is more likely to draw aluminum from your cookware. If you cook highly acidic food with an aluminum pan, make sure it is coated, or anodized, to stop leaching.
Aluminum leaching is also determined by how long the food is in contact with the metal. Cooking or storing food for more extended periods allows more aluminum to seep into them.
Of course we all use aluminum foil to store food. I would suggest you minimize the time food spends in the foil, and definitely don’t heat acidic food in it.
Throw out worn, old pans. Checking on their condition frequently will ensure that you keep your aluminum cookware safe. If the bottom of your pan is warped, it is time to throw it away. Warping results from quick changes in temperature and leads to uneven distribution of heat.
Another sign of an overused pan is if the nonstick coating is scratched. You don’t want the nonstick coating to end up flaking off into your food. If there is chipping of any kind, or any significant scratches, throw it out.
If the handle on your pan is loose or broken, throw it out immediately. It is dangerous to cook with handles that aren’t secure as it can lead to severe accidents and burns.
If you use aluminum, make sure it is in good condition and it is a good-quality pan. Don’t overheat it, and try to make sure acidic foods don’t come in contact with the aluminum itself.
Use only wood or silicone spoons and utensils on the pan to keep the coating intact. As long as you follow these simple steps, you shouldn’t worry too much about ingesting aluminum from your cookware.
Aluminum is a practical and accessible mineral that is used all around us. As cookware, it has its positives, but it also may have risks.
Aluminum is lightweight, abundant, low cost, and excellent at conducting heat. However, studies suggest it is toxic in large quantities, and small amounts can leak into our food through cookware.
Other studies indicate a correlation between aluminum consumption and Alzheimer’s. Correlation isn’t causation, though.
This may indicate that aluminum in food could cause disease in humans, but it is not proven.
The good news is that there are processes to protect us from aluminum’s potentially harmful effects. In many cases, these workarounds allow us to use aluminum products without risk.
Anodized aluminum, nonstick coated aluminum, and ceramic-coated aluminum have all been treated to seal the potentially toxic aluminum away from your food.
If you take proper care of your pans and follow the tips in this article, I don’t think you need to worry about using aluminum-containing cookware.
Aluminum foil is perhaps a bit more risky. Yet, as long as you avoid cooking with it or using it with acidic food, you should be fine.
Don’t panic if you get it wrong once in a while—this is all about reducing long term exposure, just in case. As long as you try to minimize your aluminum intake, you should be fine.