What Is Nontoxic Cookware?

Before you ditch your nonstick pans, here's what you need to know about reducing toxins in your cookware collection.

May 26, 2022

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Photo by: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

You buy organic and non-GMO food when you can, you avoid plastic and you’re all about green cleaning supplies — the next natural step would seem to be to use nontoxic cookware. However, with so many labels touting all kinds of health claims, how can you tell if the cookware you’re after is truly a better-for-you brand? While it's virtually impossible to eliminate all toxins from your kitchen, we asked cookware experts for their tips on how to choose less-toxic cookware, and how to realistically reduce the toxins in your kitchen without without completely ditching all your favorite pots and pans.

What Does Nontoxic Mean?

Though the FDA regulates the finishes that go on cookware (like Teflon), the agency doesn’t have an official definition for the term “nontoxic” in the context of cookware, says Paul Honigfort, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Division of Food Contact Substances in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Rather than calling certain materials “toxic,” the FDA considers materials’ toxicity based on how they’re used and how much exposure consumers get through using the cookware.

“The question we ask is not if the chemical could be ‘toxic’ or harmful to health at all the possible levels of exposure and all possible uses, but rather the safety of the specific exposure from the specific use,” Dr. Honigfort notes. “Simply put, the FDA’s review is based on the adage that ‘the dose makes the poison.’ All substances are toxic at a high enough level. Clearly, conditions of use and intake should be considered jointly when discussing the safety of a component of food.”

Nonstick Cookware Is the Most Common Concern

The most common concern around toxic cookware is in the nonstick category. The FDA has authorized the use of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in consumer goods since the 1960s, including in nonstick cookware, paper used for fast-food packaging and microwave popcorn bags, and in non-food applications such as stain-resistant fabrics and firefighting foams. One of the most well-known PFAS used in cookware is Teflon, made with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE); or, before 2013, with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Both are types of PFAS, but there are thousands of others.

“There could be labels on your cookware that say PFOA free, but the problem is that the companies still could use other, similar types of chemicals, and there could still be PFAS in the cookware,” says Tasha Stoiber, PhD, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.

However, according to the FDA, the manufacturing process of nonstick cookware lessens exposure to these chemicals. “This [manufacturing] process vaporizes off virtually all the smaller PFAS molecules,” Dr. Honigfort says. “The result is a highly polymerized coating bound to the surface of the cookware. Studies show that these coatings contain a negligible amount of PFAS capable of migrating to food.”

Still, there are other issues with PFAS. The manufacturing process used to make products containing PFAS, including cookware, causes these chemicals to enter the environment. Once they do, research show they stay in the environment and may enter our bodies via drinking water and other exposures. If you're concerned about PFAS in your drinking water, there are household filtration systems that can remove them.

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Photo by: GMVozd/Getty Images

GMVozd/Getty Images

What About Ceramic Cookware?

Pans coated in ceramic claim to be less toxic than other types of nonstick cookware, but because it’s an unregulated product, it can be hard for consumers to shop with transparency. “There isn’t a standard for what ceramic cookware is,” explains Alexis Pisciotta, culinary purchasing and events manager and cookware consultant for Food Network. That means how much coating is on it, and what kind of internal materials are in the cookware (which can affect how the coating adheres) differ based on brand.

Plus, “ceramic doesn’t hold up as well as other types of nonstick coatings,” Pisciotta warns; an observation that bears out in many customer reviews. Some consumers report following the instructions for care but still finding the pan's nonstick quality wears off within a few months. This makes finding quality nonstick cookware an even more imperfect system.

What Cookware to Use Instead of Nonstick

Whether you’ve given up on nonstick altogether or just want to expand your home cooking horizons, it’s a good idea to consider other materials. “The most nontoxic cookware that you can buy is stainless steel, cast iron or carbon steel; things that don’t have coating on them,” Pisciotta notes.

One way to wean yourself off grabbing your nonstick pans for everything is to start using other types of cookware for things like soups, stews and sauces, where sticking isn’t an issue, Pisciotta says. These types of pans are also a better choice for applications that require high heat, such as searing and stir-frying. (If you haven’t made a steak in a cast-iron skillet, you’re seriously missing out.)

Another benefit to using your nonstick pans less: You can preserve them longer, so the coating will remain intact for safer cooking.

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Photo by: DimaSobko/Getty Images

DimaSobko/Getty Images

How to Use Nonstick Safely

Before you panic, it’s important to note that nonstick cookware is safe when used correctly, meaning according to the manufacturer’s instructions and FDA guidelines. “We recommend that all cookware not be subjected to abusive conditions, including abusive heat conditions or metal utensils that can result in damage to the cookware and compromising the integrity of any nonstick coating,” Dr. Honigfort says. Here’s what using nonstick cookware safely looks like.

  • Use nonstick for lower-heat dishes. “You always want to cook on medium heat or lower” with nonstick cookware, Pisciotta says. Grab your nonstick for scrambled eggs, or to gently rewarm something.
  • Don’t overheat the pan. Never preheat nonstick pans on medium-high or high heat, even if a recipe calls for it. Overheating nonstick cookware can cause it to emit toxic fumes.
  • Don’t heat the pan dry. Unlike cast iron or stainless steel, which you preheat before adding any fat, be sure to add oil to your nonstick before turning your burner on. “When you heat it dry, it’s more apt to damage the coating,” Pisciotta says.
  • Use silicone or wooden utensils and avoid metal. This includes spatulas, whisks, tongs and forks. Metal utensils can scratch the pans and cause the nonstick coating to come off, and end up in your food. Though Dr. Honigfort says those chips would pass through your system undigested and are not dangerous, it’s still undesirable. Plus, when the pan is scratched, the material below the coating is exposed, and that might be harmful, Pisciotta warns.
  • Hand wash, always. Even if pans are dishwasher safe, you’re better off hand washing to preserve the coating.
  • Stack it gently. Stack nonstick pans with a dish towel or felt pan dividers in-between to keep pans from getting scratched.

Bottom line: No matter what type of pan you use, cooking at home is an important step toward good health.

A 2017 study found that people who eat home-cooked meals more than five times per week eat more vegetables and fruit, and are less likely to be overweight than people doing so less than three times per week. Research also indicates that people who eat home-cooked meals more often eat less sugar overall, and even consume fewer calories when eating out. So whether you use nonstick or another type of pan, just cooking at home is already a health booster.

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