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April 2013

Food for Thought

The Skinny on Nonstick Pans
By Lorinda

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Coffee cake . . . straight from the skillet.

 

I don't do spring cleaning; that urge to organize and spit shine usually hits me in October. However, April seems to be the month where I get a compulsion to start fresh, removing the tired and nonessential items from my life, sprucing things up a bit and mentally letting in a little fresh air.

This week I did something I've wanted to do for a long time—I banished my last few nonstick pans and replaced them with ceramic-coated pans. I'd already switched to stainless pots, and I use cast-iron skillets whenever possible, but was still clinging to a few nonstick skillets that I used for eggs, or for foods that would be hard to remove otherwise.

 


Your choice of pans (from top, clockwise): GreenPan, cast iron, stainless steel, Teflon.

 

This was a personal decision, based on a lot of confusing (and sometimes misleading) information. The more I researched the subject of nonstick safety, the more confused I got. In past columns I've discussed the need to look at studies and public information and ask: who has the most to gain by the outcome of this study? In this case, it was difficult to wade through the muck. It all boils down to whom you trust. Big business, government agencies, and watchdog groups all have their own agendas. Sorting through the "facts" can be daunting.

I noticed that studies done in the early 2000s were more adamant about potential safety issues regarding nonstick cookware. After that, I found it hard to collect any information from reputable sources. One of the major producers of nonstick cookware was scrambling to put a good spin on things, and the razzle-dazzle backfired; rather than being reassured, the obvious double-talk just raised my hackles.

In theory, nonstick pans are safe if you use them at low temperatures. If you're making scrambled eggs or heating food, there is little risk involved. I never use mine on high temperatures, but have probably pushed my luck by trying to fry potatoes or sear meat on medium-high temperatures.

I'm going to give you some links in case you'd like to become as confused as I am . . . but I'll also sum up the reasons behind the decision I made, which admittedly relied heavily on my "gut feelings."

  • I'd rather be safe than sorry. If there is any potential of launching toxic chemicals into the air my household is breathing when I'm searing or frying, I want nothing to do with the cookware.
  • If it can kill a bird[1] and make people sick at high temperatures (which can happen if you walk away from a pan on the stove for just a few minutes), it is not safe. Period.
  • The fact that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) (the most questionable chemical involved) is safe, but has "reached an agreement" with eight manufacturers to phase it out by the year 2015, is a big red flag for me.
  • According to a study done in 2012, high levels of PFOA and heart disease go together. They're not sure why, exactly, but they do coexist. Here's an interesting quote from Anoop Shankar, M.D., Ph.D. (an epidemiologist at the West Virginia University School of Public Health) regarding these findings: "It is possible that we are seeing something that is just a bystander and is there because of confounding associations." I don't know about you, but I'm not sure if he's backpedaling or is trying to politely say that maybe the people with high PFOA fry more potatoes and cook more hamburgers. Hmpf.

But wait, there's more! At least 95 percent of Americans have PFOA in their blood. It's not just from cookware. It can also be found in microwaveable popcorn, where the nonstick coating on the inside of the bag attaches to the oils. It is in waterproofing sprays, clothing, nail polish remover, and other products.[2]

Probably one of the most serious sources of PFOA exposure is from contaminated water. In 2004 one of the leading manufacturers of nonstick coatings agreed to a settlement of up to $343 million for water contamination near one of its plants. It appears they ended up getting a bill for $16.5 million.[3]

The bottom line for me is this: though nonstick pans MAY be safe if you use them at low temperatures, and PFOA in your blood MAY not cause any harm, I'm just not willing to take that chance when there are other good options.

Though there are potential dangers—however minimal—with any of our cookware choices, the safest options are cast iron and stainless steel. I use both of these regularly. But since I really want a nonstick option, my fry pans are now ceramic coated on the outside and the inside is Thermolon. Here is a link that explains the safety concerns of different types of cookware: Healthy Cookware.

The pans I bought at Target are GreenPans, which are PFOA free. There are many different brands available, but I liked the look and feel of the GreenPans, and the price was within my budget. I especially liked the white inside surface which makes it easier for me to see the food as it cooks. If you are considering purchasing ceramic-coated pans, my suggestion is to buy the heaviest pan you can afford, as long as it is comfortable to handle.

 


GreenPans

 

When using ceramic pans, it's best to use them at low temperatures, just like regular nonstick pans. But it's safe to sear at a higher temperature for a short period of time. You should use nonmetal spoons and spatulas with them (I like bamboo), use a little oil each time you cook in them, and hand wash the pans to keep them nice and slippery. GreenPans can be put in the oven. The guidelines are on this list of frequently asked questions: GreenPan FAQ.

Here's the fun part. Cooking with these pans is a dream! I don't know for sure how long the nonstick surface will last (I've seen mixed reviews on this subject, too, of course), but for now I'm loving the nonstick action. I made crepes without using any oil in the pan, and had no problem turning—or flipping—them. This was for testing purposes; you always want to use a little oil in ceramic pans to extend the life of the nonstick surface.

 


Using a GreenPan makes crepes easy to flip.

 

I tried a stir-fry that had teriyaki sauce in it, and even after the leftovers had cooled I could have just wiped the pan out with a towel.

 


A stir-fry from GreenPan . . .

 


. . . to table: easy!

 

Then I made fried rice, and the only complaint I had was that it was so nonstick, I had problems with the little pieces of rice bailing overboard. I had to use a spatula and flip, rather than stir.

 


Fried rice doesn't stick to a GreenPan.

 

And then . . . THEN I tried a skillet coffee cake. Yes, indeed. I used pineapple juice and coconut in the batter for a tropical effect, covered it with nutty, sugary goodness, put a lid on and cooked it on low for about an hour. The twelve-inch skillet that I bought didn't come with a lid. There was a boxed set of pans with lids, but the skillet in the set was smaller (not what I wanted) and the price was a little beyond my budget. Luckily I had a lid that fit it perfectly. Whew. No oil was necessary. It just slid right out of the pan!

My husband came back for seconds before I could even get my photos taken, and he even mentioned how "light" it was . . . a thumbs-up for sure.

 


Tropical Coffee Cake in a Skillet

 

I was happy to chuck all of the old nonstick pans in my cupboard, even though I felt guilty about that because PFOA does not break down in the environment.[4] Recycling nonstick pans is difficult; some people have them sandblasted so they can reuse or recycle the pan. Regardless of the method of disposal, the nonstick coating ends up in the ground somewhere.[5] We have very limited recycling options where I live, so my old pans are heading to the landfill. At least after this trip, I'm through adding to the mess!

[1] Canaries in the Kitchen
[2] Be Informed—Non-stick Pans Pose Danger
[3] E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company Settlement
[4] Fluoride Action Network Pesticide Project
[5] How to Recycle Nonstick Pans

 

Contact Lorinda at mamakinnon@aol.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Also enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.

 

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