Unless you’ve deliberately avoided it, the chances are that you’ve cooked with aluminum cookware in the past.
Aluminum is an amazing metal that has a lot of benefits, but you’ve probably heard about the dangers of cooking with aluminum.
Is aluminum cookware safe? Or, perhaps more importantly, how can you make sure you are using it safely? Read on to find out.
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 aluminum pans.
There are benefits to cooking with aluminum pans. First, aluminum an excellent heat conductor—it’s 16 times more thermally conductive than stainless steel.
It’s also the third most abundant element on earth, making aluminum pots and pans pretty cheap.
If that isn’t enough, aluminum is lightweight, making it easy to maneuver hot aluminum pans full of food. I’ve also reviewed anodized-aluminum cookware, and while it isn’t for everyone, it’s got a lot going for it.
However, it’s not all gravy. There are some definite risks associated with aluminum cookware.
Dangers of Aluminum Cookware
Although aluminum is an excellent material, it does have drawbacks. Aluminum reacts with the acid in food, causing it to leach into your meal. This is why aluminum cookware is normally anodized or coated with a ceramic or nonstick coating.
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 Centers 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, 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, and 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 Alzheimer’s. More on that later.
Sources of Aluminum
Aluminum exposure can come from more than just your cookware. It is a naturally occurring element found in rocks, soil, and minerals. There are multiple ways aluminum could find its way into your body.
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 even reports of it being found in drinking water.
The CDC estimates the average person consumes between 7 and 9 milligrams each day of aluminum from food alone.
Many of the household items 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 growth in their brains. This led to the idea that aluminum causes severe issues in humans.
However, the study results involved extremely high 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 smaller quantities of aluminum ingested from food 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 it remains inconclusive.
Another study looked at aluminum levels in the brain, serum, and cerebrospinal fluids of Alzheimer’s patients compared to a control group and 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).”
The bottom line? 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.
Ceramic Coated Aluminum Cookware
Ceramic-coated aluminum cookware is exactly what it sounds like–aluminum cookware with a ceramic coating.
What is Ceramic?
Ceramic is an inorganic material, meaning it doesn’t contain oxygen. It’s primarily silicon and oxygen, so it has 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 they dip the pan in it) and then cure it at very high heat.
Is Ceramic-Coated Aluminum Cookware Safe?
Ceramic is a safe material. It can be heated very hot and not break down or emit toxic fumes, unlike Teflon-coated pans. It doesn’t react with acidic food, and it’s scratch-resistant (not scratch-proof). However, it’s best to only use wood or silicone cooking utensils in order to protect the coating.
How Good is Ceramic Compared to Other Coatings?
Compared to other non-stick coatings, ceramic is both better and worse.
Ceramic is healthy and environmentally friendly. Using inorganic materials is better for the environment than other non-stick coatings. 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. That’s a huge difference! Although ceramic pots and pans can be better for you and for the earth, they may not last as long.
In the end, it depends on the pan and the ceramic. Some ceramic pans even have Teflon in them! If you are after safe, Teflon-free cookware, check out my ceramic cookware roundup.
Hard-Anodized Aluminum Cookware
Hard-anodized aluminum cookware is a type of aluminum cookware that has been treated in such a way as to cover the raw aluminum and prevent it from getting into your food. If you want to understand aluminum cookware safety, 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.
Hard-anodized aluminum cookware 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 aluminum pans are twice as strong as stainless steel. This material is non-reactive and resists scratching and corrosion. Hard-anodized aluminum pans are incredibly durable.
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 aluminum cookware often has a ceramic or nonstick coating, as well. The hard-anodized layer is safe on its own, but it’s rare to see it uncovered, at least inside the pan.
If aluminum pans do not have a ceramic coating, then they are most likely coated with a nonstick layer. Nonstick pans are convenient and easy to clean. Food slides right off of the surface. As long as you cook your food at normal heat, nonstick pots and pans are safe.
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 aluminum cookware.
Is PTFE Safe?
Teflon is a non-reactive and inert substance when ingested. It’s even a component in some joint replacement surgeries!
However, it does become harmful when overheated. If the pan reaches temperatures above 500°F (260°C), it 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. These fumes are also lethal to birds.
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, you can preheat the pan with olive oil. The oil will begin to smoke well before 500°F, ensuring you don’t overheat your pots and pans.
Aluminum foil is very thin aluminum you can fold and wrap food in. 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 your aluminum exposure.
Avoid aluminum foil if you want to reduce the aluminum content in your food. At the very least, minimize the times you heat food while in contact with the foil. Using it to cover a bowl you are heating in the oven is less risky. Of course, you should NEVER use aluminum foil in the microwave.
Avoid cooking with aluminum foil at high heat. This increases the chance of aluminum leaching into your food, since foil is much more likely to react with food at high temperatures.
Using foil to cover bowls or store food is much less risky. 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
Acidic foods react with metals. That doesn’t mean that every acid will immediately dissolve every metal, but acidic foods are more likely to interact with Aluminum.
If you use aluminum, make sure to avoid cooking acidic foods like:
- Citrus fruits
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 is the non-stick part and should be touching the food.)
Tips for Safe Cooking with Aluminum
If you have a cupboard full of aluminum pots and pans, you don’t need to throw them out! There are things that you can do to ensure safe cooking.
The amount of metal that could leach from your aluminum cookware varies, depending on the type of food you’re cooking. For example, tomato sauce is highly acidic, so it is more likely to draw aluminum from your cookware.
If you are cooking highly acidic foods, be sure to use a coated or hard-anodized aluminum pan to prevent leaching. It’s generally unadvisable to use uncoated aluminum cookware.
The amount of leaching is also determined by how long the food is in contact with the metal. Cooking or storing food for extended periods allows more aluminum to seep into them. Most of us use aluminum foil to store food. I recommend minimizing the time food spends in the foil, and definitely avoid heating acidic foods in it.
Throw out worn, old aluminum cookware. If the bottom of your pan is warped, it’s 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 flake off into your food. If there are chips or any significant scratches, throw the pan 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. It can lead to severe accidents or burns.
If you use aluminum cookware, make sure it is in good condition. 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 aluminum cookware 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.
Is Aluminum Safe to Cook With?
Is aluminum safe to cook with? There is no conclusive evidence that it is harmful, but there is some evidence it could be if you cook with uncoated aluminum cookware. Coated aluminum pots are pans are safe.
There are no aluminum cookware dangers if there is an intact protective layer on the top. However if this is absent then a small quantity of aluminum can leach into your food. The affect of this is unknown but there is a small chance it causes Alzheimer’s.
What is the Safest Aluminum for Cooking?
Hard anodized aluminum cookware is safe for cooking as it has a protective, nonreactive, aluminum oxide layer. Additionally, some stainless steel cookware features aluminum sandwiched between 2 or more layers of stainless steel. This cookware is known as tri-ply, multi-ply, or multi-clad. It’s safe, as well.
How to Season Aluminum Cookware
Many aluminum pans have a non-stick layer that works better if it isn’t seasoned. Any seasoning acts as a barrier to the non-stick, reducing its effectiveness. (There are some exceptions to this where the manufacturer recommends seasoning, in this case follow their instructions.)
If you have a raw aluminum pan, I don’t recommend cooking on it all, but if you must, you can season it by covering it with a thin layer of oil and heating until it smokes.
Is Aluminum Bakeware Safe?
Aluminum bakeware is safe if it has a protective coating, such as a non-stick layer. Otherwise, there is a chance a small amount of aluminum could leach into your food. However, there is no concrete evidence that ingesting small amounts of aluminum is harmful.
Is it Safe to Eat Food Cooked in Aluminum Foil?
Food cooked in aluminum foil is probably safe to eat, but be aware that traces of aluminum have likely leached into this food. The effects of this are not certain, but I recommend using aluminum foil sparingly when cooking. Avoid acidic foods when using high heat.
Is Anodized Aluminum Cookware safe?
Yes, hard-anodized aluminum cookware is safe since it contains a protective layer of aluminum oxide.
If the surface is scratched, exposing the raw aluminum underneath, there is a chance some of this will leach into your food. I recommend not using scratched pans to be safe.
Conclusion: Is Aluminum Safe to Cook With?
Aluminum cookware has plenty of positives, but it also carries some risks.
Aluminum cookware is lightweight, inexpensive, and excellent at conducting heat. However, studies suggest aluminum 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, but it’s concerning. 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 cookware without worry. 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, you needn’t worry about using aluminum cookware.
Aluminum foil is perhaps a bit more risky. 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.
Alternatives to Aluminum Cookware
If you’ve read my guide, you’re prepared to cook safely with aluminum cookware. But if you wish to avoid aluminum cookware, check out these cookware guides: