Question: I have been using aluminum cookware ever since I began keeping house 45 years ago. Now my husband wants me to discard it (which I am reluctant to do) because he read that cooking with aluminum can cause Alzheimer's disease. Is this true?
Answer: According to Dr. Andrew Monjan at the National Institute on Aging, there is "no unequivocal evidence now that would say it (cooking food in aluminum pots) is a risk factor." The following information about Alzheimer's disease may also assist you in the decision of whether or not to discard the cookware.
The disease was named for a German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 described a 51-year-old woman who died of an illness associated with memory loss, disorientation and severe dementia. Although it is now estimated that 5% to 10% of all people older than 65 and a smaller percentage of those younger than 65 suffer from the disease, the search for its cause continues.
Researchers have found increased concentrations of aluminum in the brain cells of persons who have died of Alzheimer's disease. What is not clear, however, is whether this is a cause or effect of the disease.
An August, 1985, copy of Nutrition & the M.D. states: "Current interest focuses on three possible causes of Alzheimer's disease: slow virus infection, autoimmune processes and aluminum toxicity. The link to aluminum is tantalizing but still tentative."
Third Most Common Element
Aluminum is the third most common element on Earth. According to an article, "Aluminum Content of the American Diet" by Janet L. Greger from a May, 1985, issue of Food Technology, the "three sources of dietary aluminum in foods are natural sources, food additives and utensils used during food preparation." Greger discusses each of the three sources, then summarizes her research by saying, "At this time, it appears that the amounts of aluminum ingested by Americans from food are insufficient to cause major changes in metabolism of otherwise healthy adults."
In Greger's discussion of aluminum addition during preparation and storage, she states that "studies have shown the amounts of aluminum that accumulated in foods during preparation depended on the pH of the foods; the length of the cooking periods, the type of utensils and how they had been used previously. Even so, most foods accumulated less than 0.2 milligram per 100 grams of food during preparation and storage." She goes on to add that "the potential amount of aluminum added to a total day's diet through the use of aluminum pans, trays and foil is difficult to predict because many assumptions on food choices and food preparation must be made."
It should also be noted that most foods, especially grains and vegetables, contain small amounts of aluminum naturally. Considering all the potential sources of natural aluminum in food and water, Greger said "it would appear that most Americans would consume 2 to 10 milligrams aluminum daily from natural sources."
The Time Factor
"The amount of aluminum in the diet is small compared to the amount of aluminum in many antacid products and some buffered analgesics," Greger wrote. "These pharmaceutical doses of aluminum are 20- to 200-fold greater than the amount of aluminum consumed daily by most individuals in their diets. The long-term consequences of ingesting even pharmaceutical levels of aluminum are not clear."
At least two of our research sources brought out the fact that we may be dealing with a time factor--aluminum has only been in common usage a few decades and it may take that long to build up to levels implicated in nerve damage. Also several factors have inhibited research: There is currently no way to test brain cells of Alzheimer's disease patients and their blood levels show no difference; no good experimental animal model has been found to test for the disease.
In the final analysis, people must weigh the risk/benefit factors on an individual basis. Some experts take the stand that if there's an alternative, why not use it? There is also the old adage that recommends using moderation in everything we do.