I started investigating safe cookware hoping for a definite answer. I was looking for something like: this cookware is always safe to use. Unfortunately, it turns out not to be that simple.
There isn’t a single piece of cookware you can point to and say is 100% safe in all circumstances for everyone. A pan that is safe, or even ideal, for one person may be problematic for their children.
It can depend on allergies you have, on your current iron levels, on what you are cooking, and how you are cooking.
Some things will also be a matter of personal belief – the research doesn’t offer absolutes.
My goal here is to help you find the safest, least toxic cookware for your family. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to let me guide you through this.
How To Choose Safe Non-Toxic Cookware?
Cookware materials can be confusing. A copper pan may not have any copper. An aluminum pan may not have aluminum in contact with the food. And a nonstick pan could be just about anything.
Titanium is strong and light, copper is great for heat transfer and aluminum is cheap. Yet, if these metals aren’t in contact with your food how can they affect toxicity?
The starting point for food safety in cookware is the coating or lining of the pan. It’s what your food touches and so is the most important part when it comes to cooking safety.
So this guide focuses on the coating. Is it toxic? Does it degrade? This is important as a pan is often advertised using it’s base metal, not the coating. For example:
- Hard anodized aluminum pans normally have a separate nonstick coating.
- Copper pans rarely actually expose your food to copper.
- Almost all ceramic pans have some sort of coating on top, or are combined with titanium.
The flipside of this is that once your coating is scratched, you should to throw the pan away. Whatever is underneath the coating may not be food grade. In any case a damaged surface is more likely to leach toxic elements into your food.
Looking at the details of the coating, key questions to ask are:
- Is it toxic?
- How easily does it degrade or chip?
- What is the maximum safe temperature?
- Does it have lead?
Materials in the body of the cookware can also impact health. They might emit toxic fumes when heated. Or if they are less durable, they may contribute to the pan degrading
It’s not a direct health concern, but it’s worth considering the sustainability of the cookware. There’s two ways for cookware to be sustainable:
- Easily recyclable materials from renewable, low energy, sources, like bamboo
- Very long lasting cookware like cast iron or carbon steel
Of course this isn’t a tick box but a gradient, and it’s a difficult one to measure. Often it might not depend completely on the material.
My suggestion here is to also look at the manufacturer – are they committed to sustainability? Do they make an effort to offset carbon? Do they have a recycling program for old cookware?
When you pick cookware, make sure that it is actually meant for cooking. It should be food grade and approved for heating. If you try to cook food in something not meant for it, you are asking for trouble, whatever the material.
I believe that the single most important factor in the safety of cookware is the manufacturer.
A reputable manufacturer, or importer, selling in these countries will adhere to the law. I’m not going to pretend that governments are perfect! But you can hope for good minimum standards based on scientific evidence. For example: there shouldn’t be large amounts of lead leaching from modern cookware. At least not if it is made by a reputable manufacturer, in a developed country. (Ditto for cookware imported by a big brand).
There have been cases of lead poisoning on cookware bought from abroad.
I mean here’s another way of looking at it – if you don’t trust the manufacturer – how do you know they are even telling you the truth? They could say what they like about the cookware material.
Handmade cookware is going to be the most risky. The person making it may not even know what they need to do to make it safe. They could accidentally poison you.
Handmade stuff is nice to look at, but maybe not so great with food. I’m sure they are exceptions here, but I would be extra careful.
It’s not only the health aspects that count; it’s no good buying a pan you won’t use because it doesn’t work for you.
These are the things I look at:
- Is it dishwasher safe? How easy is it to clean?
- Can I use metal utensils?
- Is it oven safe?
- Are the handles cool to touch when I pick it up?
- How long does it last?
- How much work is it to look after it?
- What’s the cost?
- Will it work on my stove?
I don’t need a yes to every question – these help me form a picture, and perhaps plug a gap in my cookware.
Is Old Cookware Safe?
Unless it is cast iron or stainless steel (and not enameled) I would be very careful with old cookware. It’s easiest to explain separately for each material.
Copper is an essential element but too much is bad for you. Any old copper cookware is likely to be pure copper, and even if not, it may have an exposed copper surface.
It’s difficult to say for sure how much old copper cookware will affect your copper intake. I don’t take this risk with my family.
You should avoid old Teflon, or similar nonstick at all costs. Teflon used to be made using Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) a toxic substance. This hasn’t been the case for years now, so doesn’t apply to new nonstick pans.
What’s more, nonstick gets damaged. It chips, and exposes the layer underneath. This vastly increases the risks.
Nonstick pans should get a good few years use and then be thrown away. But this, clearly, isn’t great for the environment!
Aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Most modern aluminum cookware will have a coating so should be fine.
In the case of older cookware, this coating may be damaged, or may not have existed. It’s just too risky for me.
Ceramic / Enamel / Glass
With older ceramic, glass and enamel cookware I’m wary about the lead content.
Probably anything in the last couple of decades is OK, though check what it’s supposed to be coated with.
If you have a beloved piece of old ceramic cookware, why not test it for lead? Search for “lead kit” and you will find plenty of inexpensive tests.
Old cookware that’s OK
Cast Iron and Carbon Steel should be fine, whatever their age.
Watch out for enameled cast iron though – does the enamel have lead?
What Modern Cookware is Safe and Non Toxic?
Cast Iron and Carbon Steel
Cast Iron and Carbon Steel have some differences in their heating properties. However, for toxicity purposes are basically the same metal.
They are, for many people, the safest cookware to use.
They don’t emit toxic fumes, nor leach nasty chemicals and don’t really have a maximum safe temperature. (At least for normal cooking purposes).
The biggest potential controversy, healthwise, can also be an advantage. According to a study from the 1980s published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, cast iron will leach iron into your food. The amount increases if the food is acidic, like tomatoes.
But if you are iron deficient – great you get more iron!
So if you have Hemochromatosis avoid cast iron. If you have a young family, perhaps use it sparingly. If you have anaemia – use it often!
You need to be especially careful when cooking tomatoes or other acidic food with cast iron. It increases the amount of iron leached into your food, and can damage the pan.
The other consideration with cast iron is that it is more work than other cookware. Do you have the time for it? Are you going to clean it immediately after every use, dry it and oil it? Every. Single. Time.
Since I have children, I don’t have as much time for cast iron.
Unless you have hemochromatosis, I would recommend at least one iron skillet. They are useful and versatile, plus they can last lifetimes.
Enameled Cast Iron
If the pan, or pot, is completely covered in enamel, then this can be a great idea. The cast iron heats evenly, and retains its heat. The enamel protects the cast iron and eliminates the need for seasoning.
Obviously you need to make sure the enamel surface is safe.
Unfortunately what some manufacturers do is leave part of the cast iron exposed. This isn’t great since you do need to look after that part of the cast iron. I kind of don’t see the point of this…
Stainless Steel is one of the safest cookware materials. Most people will use it without a problem, though there are some exceptions that I will come to.
In terms of temperature the limits are ridiculously high – you don’t need to worry about them. (Of course be careful not to burn yourself on the handle!)
It’s particularly convenient when making soup or pasta and using lots of water. Nothing sticks to the side of the pan when there is lots of liquid.
If you are using it for frying, be prepared to scrub, and to scrub hard. It’s easy for food to get stuck, and often appears as a “stain” that takes a lot of effort to get out.
Now stainless steel does leach nickel and chromium. For most people this isn’t a big problem, but it does mean I wouldn’t recommend using it all the time.
If you have a nickel allergy you need to be especially careful with stainless steel. One option is to get nickel free stainless steel. Any grade in the format “XX/0” won’t have any nickel, as that last 0 means 0% nickel. For example stainless steel grades “21/0” or “18/0” have no nickel. Most stainless steel is 18/10 – i.e. 10% nickel.
Stainless steel with a damaged surface is most likely to leach nickel, or chromium, or even iron. This can happen if you use metal utensils, or scour with steel wool.
I’ve come across many a “copper” pan that didn’t have any copper in it at all! Those that do have copper, often have a ceramic cooking surface.
Copper is a great material for heating, and is often included as a layer in pans. Some pans are “copper-bottomed” to help spread the heat (though I’ve noticed the copper will wear away over time).
So the first question to ask is – is it really copper cookware? Is the cooking surface made of copper?
If the answer is yes, you may have a problem.
As with many materials, copper will leach into food. Copper is an essential mineral, so you may think this isn’t so bad. But, we probably get enough copper in our diet as it is, and overexposure to copper is harmful.
So I would avoid pure copper cookware. If it is copper bottomed, or copper with a lining – look at what the cooking surface is made of.
Teflon and PTFE nonstick
The active ingredient of modern Teflon is Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). “PTFE nonstick” means Teflon or similar nonstick.
There’s a lot of misinformation about Teflon and PTFE nonstick. Anyone talking to you about Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is behind the times. PFOA has been completely banned since 2015.
There’s also a lot of complaints about gases PTFE releases at high temperatures. Yet a lot of these studies heat an empty pan on high heat for a long time. Not something you should do with any cookware and not realistic.
Still, there are examples of pet birds being killed by overheating nonstick pans. I don’t think this happens with normal use. Also, birds are not people. Dogs can be killed by chocolate, for example, but that isn’t cited as a reason not to eat it.
I think PTFE is one of those things that people want to find problems with, and so they do.
But that doesn’t mean it is safe!
There are some concerns that some of the newer materials used in the manufacture of PTFE nonstick are unsafe.
Studies are still ongoing, but the main chemical, something known as GenX, is likely safer than PFOA.
In fact, in any case, the concerns that do arise are about environmental factors. So it might not be a good idea to live near a nonstick factory, but cooking with nonstick doesn’t seem to be unsafe, if done correctly.
And that’s the key; if you are cooking with PTFE nonstick, do it properly. In summary:
- Keep it below 260 °C (500 °F) (fine for most cooking), or manufacturer’s recommendation
- Don’t use metal utensils
- Only put in the dishwasher if in line with manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t let anything touch the cooking surface while in the dishwasher.
- Throw it away once the inside is chipped or scratched.
- Don’t keep pet birds in the kitchen when using PTFE nonstick
- Always oil and preheat the pan
Thermalon is a new type of nonstick material incorporating ceramic components. It doesn’t use PTFE and according to the manufacturer is “made from natural materials”.
I like that it is stable up to 450 ℃ (840℉). This is more than enough and gives plenty of margin for error.
I don’t know how safe it is. It’s new and unknown. It looks promising though.
Titanium is used in dental implants, so it’s hard to imagine it could be unsafe to cook with. What’s more, it’s light, and durable, so surely it’s ideal for cooking?
In fact, apart from it being expensive, there are a couple of issues with titanium.
First, it doesn’t heat efficiently, or spread the heat well. It’s not a great cookware material.
Second, it may release harmful titanium dioxide nanoparticles. However since it normally only releases them at very high temperatures (around 500 ℃ (932℉) – pans shouldn’t reach this when cooking normally. A damaged surface could also be more likely to release these nanoparticles. If you’re careful this shouldn’t be a problem.
I’d be happy with pure Titanium cookware in terms of safety, but not in terms of performance. Titanium is ideal for backpacking or where you need light, strong cookware. Anywhere else, it is trying to solve the wrong problem.
On the other hand a lot of “titanium” cookware incorporates other materials as the cooking surface, and/or the base. Titanium might be the body, or might be mixed in with ceramic to achieve a nonstick lining. These are probably fine, but as ever, the details are key. Exactly what is being included in the cooking surface? Some titanium ceramic surfaces include PTFE for example.
The main use of plastic as cookware is in the microwave. It’s critical to check the plastic is microwave safe. The packaging should state recommended usage and safety. Unsafe plastic may release harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol.
Clay itself may contain lead. This applies even to “natural” clay – lead is present “naturally” in the earth! If it’s glazed this may stop the lead in the clay leaching out – but what’s in the glaze?
Don’t be fooled into thinking clay is some sort of natural, healthy cookware – it likely isn’t. There may be special cases, but I would suggest avoiding clay unless you know what you are getting into.
Ceramic covers a lot of different cookware. There’s very little pure ceramic cookware on the market.
Pure ceramic in itself should be fine (if from a reputable manufacturer). However pure ceramic runs the risk of shattering if dropped or exposed to a sudden temperature change.
If it breaks into lots of small pieces this is a safety issue, but even a few large pieces aren’t ideal.
Ceramic maximum safe temperatures vary by manufacturer.
Anything other than pure ceramic – you need to look at what’s been mixed in or coated on.
Ceramica is a great example of this done well. It’s a non-stick surface on Cuisinart Green Gourmet cookware, and it’s PTFE-free, safe and environmentally friendly.
Not every manufacturer will do this well though!
Glass is quite rare as far as cookware goes. Yet modern glass cookware is non toxic and easy to look after.
It’s durable and scratch resistant.
Drop it and it will smash though. Likewise sudden temperature changes are not a good idea.
Most people would count shards of broken glass as a safety issue!
You can use some glass cookware on the stovetop, generally though, glass works well in the oven.
Bamboo is just wood, so it should be fine. Be careful to check what, if anything, it has been treated with.
It won’t last very long and has limited uses, but as a steamer it works great.
Even better, since bamboo is a type of grass, it is as sustainable as it gets.
Silicone is used in bakeware and utensils. It’s durable, nonstick and flexible. It’s difficult to find much hard evidence around silicone. It’s probably safe but I would like to see some definitive research.
You don’t want to be exposed to aluminum. It is associated with diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
That said with most aluminum cookware you aren’t exposed to the metal itself. There’s two reasons for this.
First, modern cookware is usually anodized aluminum. This means it has a hard aluminum oxide layer around the outside which seals the aluminum in. This aluminum oxide layer is tough and safe.
More importantly, there is normally another surface layer, usually nonstick of some sort. So it’s the surface layer that counts.
It’s also not clear that the exposure you get from using aluminium cookware, or soft drink cans, is actually dangerous.
To be safe, I would recommend only buying anodized aluminum cookware with a coating you trust. When the coating starts to scratch / get damaged – bin the pan.
Keeping Cookware Safe
One of the biggest risks with cookware isn’t the material at all, but how you use it. Safe material can turn dangerous if misused.
Using a Microwave
I’m all for convenience but I haven’t had a microwave for years. I don’t particularly need one – I use the oven instead. It takes a bit more time, but I don’t take up valuable counter space and don’t risk “heat spots”. Honestly – the oven is easier!
If you are using a microwave, it isn’t unhealthy in itself, but you do need to be careful what you use.
Never put anything metallic in the microwave. Metal + Microwave = Fire.
Microwaves heat up water, so I’d avoid putting bamboo in the microwave – you’d cook the bamboo!
Plastics and ceramics might be OK, if they are labelled as microwave safe. Plastics that aren’t microwave safe may release chemicals when heated. Ceramics may contain metal.
So, stick to microwave safe glass, plastics and ceramics. Or – use the oven.
Storing isn’t the same as cooking; you are leaving food in a pot or pan for longer. This increases the chance of something leaching out. It’s best to use glass, ceramic or tupperware for storage. Make sure they are designed to store food.
What ever happens, don’t store:
- Acidic foods in metallic containers
- Anything in Teflon, Aluminum or Copper
Metal will probably scratch your cookware. It’s great if cookware is advertised as metal utensil safe as it means it is more durable. But .. if you use metal all the time, it’s likely to scratch, even if “metal utensil safe”. With some cookware, like cast iron, you can repair the scratch, through seasoning.
I use wood or silicone utensils most of the time. I save metal utensils for the BBQ or grill.
Whatever surface you cook with, you should always lubricate it with oil, even nonstick. I prefer olive oil.
Also, prewarm the pan before adding food. It helps make it less sticky. The pan is warm enough when the oil becomes less viscous (more runny).
One of the biggest mistakes people make is overheating their cookware. Respect manufacturer temperature limits. Make sure that you are using the right temperature scale (Celsius or Fahrenheit).
Most decent pans should be able to cope with a medium heat. They can perhaps cope with a high heat for a short time with food in the pan (to get started).
Never heat an empty pan.
It’s a bad idea to leave things to soak for a long time – cast iron will rust, but other pans could get damaged. Clean it straight away.
Dishwashers are normally fine, but check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some recommend against the dishwasher.
You should wash carbon steel and cast iron by hand. In fact you should take particular care when cleaning cast iron or carbon steel.
When cleaning, for all cookware, be careful with abrasive materials. Ideally avoid them altogether. They can damage lining or trigger release of harmful chemicals when next cooking.
Keep an eye on the surface of the pan. If it starts to become damaged you may need to throw away the pan, or re-season it.
Perhaps the safest materials to cook with are cast iron or carbon steel. Unless you have hemochromatosis, or young children. Or you don’t have the time to look after it!
Stainless steel is super safe. Unless you have a nickel allergy. Or you are frying food and don’t have the time to clean up.
Like I said, at the beginning, there’s no single answer.
Here’s what I use:
- I fry and sauté with a nonstick pan. I keep it on no more than a medium heat. I also use a nonstick saucepan for things like porridge
- For pasta, soup, steaming, rice, or anything with lots of liquid, I use a stainless steel pot.
- I sometimes bring out my cast iron skillet, especially if I’m searing steak or I want to put it in the oven. I avoid cooking acidic food with it.
- For the oven I use glass and ceramic casserole dishes. I’m extra careful not to drop them and when cleaning. The dishwasher is fine – after they have cooled down.
I’m also prepared to bin my nonstick pan if the surface gets damaged – I’ve done it plenty of times in fact. Some brands last longer, but in the end none last more than a few years.
I follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and especially never heat an empty pan.
Keep to the instructions, take care of your cookware and mix it up. Use different cookware to reduce the risk.
Please include attribution to Clan Kitchen with this graphic.