Teflon is a kitchen favorite, and many households are likely to have an array of non-stick pots and pans in their kitchen. With all the attention that we give to cooking healthy food, should you also be concerned about how you are cooking your food?
What is Teflon made of?
Teflon is the trade name for a synthetic polymer, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). This is a “hydrophobic polymer” which means that it doesn’t stick to water or anything that is wet. However, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), thermal degradation of PTFE can cause a medley of toxic compounds to be released, including highly corrosive and potentially lethal gases.
In addition, research from EWG demonstrates Teflon and PFOA (the chemical used to make Teflon) are some of the most persistent chemicals in the world. The toxic repercussions of these will have an environmental impact for the next 25 generations, and potentially shorten each generation’s lifespan. PFOA’s potential health impacts include liver damage, immune dysfunction, thyroid dysfunction, and a decreased ability to fight infection.
When is Teflon a problem?
Teflon pans are at their best when they are brand new. However, once they begin to deteriorate – even just a minor scrape or scratch – the Teflon begins to erode and particles end up in your food, and therefore, inside your body. While transference is usually minimal, and polymers are large and hard to absorb – meaning Teflon particles eaten at room temperature should pass through the body to little effect – there have been no long-term studies on the ingestion of Teflon, so it is wise to avoid the use of badly scuffed non-stick pans!
Overheating non-stick pans can also cause exposure. Teflon begins to deteriorate after the temperature of cookware reaches about 500°F, and decomposes above 662°F. PTFE fumes are outgassed and can be inhaled. In rare cases, exposure can lead to flu-like symptoms in humans and can be lethal to birds.
While, these temperatures are not usually reached during normal cooking food, leaving pans unattended can get them hotter than you think. Running range fan when cooking is a great way to exhaust what is released and to minimize exposure risk.
Best way to minimize risk? Skip the Teflon completely.
What are the alternatives to Teflon?
Cast iron pans, if seasoned correctly, can be just as effective as non-stick pots and pans without the addition of chemical coatings. A top tip is to keep them oiled, make sure to dry them completely after washing and rub a tiny amount of oil into the surface of the pan before storing them.
Ceramic cookware is naturally non-stick, microwave safe, and can withstand temperatures up to 2000ºF. Most importantly, they have no toxic or chemical coating or trace metals that may leach from the surface and into your food! Not all ceramic options are the same, so look for products that are 100% PTFE, PFOA, APEO, NMP and NEP free.
Other options: Glass, stoneware, or stainless steel!
- The EWG – Teflon Offgass Studies
- The EWG – Teflon Can Create Negative Side Effects
- Training Initiatives in Biomedical & Biological Sciences – Ask a Toxicologist: Is it safe to use Teflon pans?
For even more insight into the “industry” of Teflon – check out the Sundance documentary “The Devil We Know”, now streaming on Netflix!
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