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ALL ABOUT FOOD:Play it safe with kitchen tools

Something else to worry about... cookware. Rumors are swirling, like the vapors of PFOA, about the dangers of aluminum and coated cookware, not to mention the lead in some ceramic pots and the possible toxicity of plastic containers when heated or frozen.

Are you prepared to throw out everything and start all over again? Do you really need to? Williams Sonoma and Coast Hardware would be delighted if you did.

There are certainly some problems but how serious they are is somewhat debatable. It depends on whom you ask.

Dupont’s website says there are absolutely no problems with Teflon®. However, Dupont was recently fined $10.25 million by the EPA for withholding information of potential health and environmental hazards of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, a synthetic chemical that is a key component in Teflon® and other non-stick coatings).

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A scientific advisory panel to the EPA unanimously recommended that PFOA should be considered a likely human carcinogen.

However, the EPA’s website states:

“EPA does not have any indication that the public is being exposed to PFOA through the use of Teflon®-coated or other trademarked nonstick cookware. Teflon® and other trademarked products are not PFOA. At the present time, EPA does not believe there is any reason for consumers to stop using any products because of concerns about PFOA.”

While there is still debate about the toxicity of Teflon® at normal temperatures, it is well-established that at high heat Teflon® emits a toxic gas. We are going to side with the EPA rather than Dupont on this one. We have both tossed our coated cookware.

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More controversial is the issue of aluminum. After the big scare concerning the appearance of significant amounts of aluminum in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims, no evidence has conclusively shown a causal link.

It has been theorized that Alzheimer’s disease itself may create an inability to process aluminum out of the brain. Aluminum is in air, water, soil, plants, animals, foods, medications and household products.

Nearly half of the cookware produced today contains aluminum. People normally take in about 10 mg daily, mostly from food.

However, one anti-acid tablet contains 50 mg and buffered aspirin may contain 10 to 20 mg. It is also found in all anti-perspirants.

The World Health Organization says one can consume more than 50 mg without harm.

A person using aluminum pans for all cooking purposes and food storage would take in an estimated 3.5 mg daily. During cooking, aluminum dissolves most easily from worn or pitted pots and pans.

The longer food is cooked or stored in it, the greater the amount that leaches into the food. Leafy vegetables and acidic or salty foods such as citrus and tomatoes absorb the most aluminum.

Manufacturers of anodized aluminum, which is a process that hardens the surface, making it non-stick, scratch resistant and easy to clean, claim that the anodizing process seals the surface preventing any leaching at all.

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So far, we have been unable to find any scientific studies that corroborate their claim. So why take the risk of absorbing any extra aluminum when so many other options are available?

Pottery made in the United States must meet safety guidelines for lead and is safe but pottery from other countries could possibly contain lead. Look for a label that says safe for food use.

Copper is an excellent conductor of heat and is especially good for stovetop cooking. A general rule is that the heavier the copper pot, the better the quality.

Copper cooking utensils are lined with tin or stainless steel. These linings are somewhat fragile and can be worn away with scouring or intense usage, although they can be relined.

Good copper pots are expensive and relining is too. The FDA cautions against using unlined copper for cooking because the metal itself dissolves easily into the food and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Good old-fashioned cast iron is still strong, inexpensive and an even conductor of heat. Unglazed, it will add a small amount of iron to food. This can be a good thing (particularly for vegetarians) or not so good if you have a problem with processing iron.

The only drawback is that these pots need to be seasoned before use and frequently rubbed with oil to prevent rust. Enameled cast-iron does not present any problem at all and lasts forever, but is quite expensive.

Stainless steel is the least problematic choice. It is durable, doesn’t corrode or tarnish, is resistant to wear and is non-porous.

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It can be safely heated to high temperatures but, since stainless steel does not conduct heat evenly, most stainless cookware is made with copper or aluminum bottoms — but they never come in contact with the food.

For baking, Pyrex and Corning Ware, a pyro-ceramic glass, are recommended and are completely safe for storage as well.

Now, on the subject of storage, let’s talk about plastic. Let us also talk about heating plastic in the microwave or freezing it, which leads us to the topic of dioxins, a group of chemicals thought to be some of the most toxic, carcinogenic compounds known to man.

There have recently been a number of news articles claiming that dioxins can be released by freezing water in plastic bottles or microwaving in plastic containers.

Rolf Halden, an expert in dioxin contamination from the Center for Water and Health at John Hopkins, states emphatically that this is an urban legend.

There are no dioxins in plastics and furthermore freezing works against the release of chemicals.

Heat, however does the opposite. It increases the likelihood of chemical leaching. What plastic often does contain is phthalates, a group of chemicals added to make them flexible and less brittle.

These chemicals, in large quantities, have been shown to cause kidney, liver and lung damage as well as feminization in baby boys.

Food should not be heated in plastic or covered with plastic wrap in the microwave unless these items are labeled microwave safe, although we have heard that there is new research in the works concluding that no plastic may be safe for food.

Use glass, Corning Ware or ceramic dishes instead. Paper towels can cover the food. Again, why not play it safe until definitive research has been done.


  • ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com

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