Let's begin with the basics
Non-stick pans are made up of two different materials. The first is the one inside of a non-stick pan that is metal, generally aluminum, which helps conduct heat evenly. This metal base is then sprayed with a non-stick coating that we most famously know as Teflon (1). The non-stick coating is made up of fluorinated chemicals, which are as bad for you as they sound. While the fluorinated chemicals help keep the surface of pans slick and nonstick, they have been found to cause negative health effects in humans. Most notably, the gasses released from Teflon can cause respiratory problems such as shortness of breath, chest pain and coughing (2).
If you're like me, the reason you need to replace your non-stick pan is because it's scratched up, and you can see the aluminum underneath. That's when it gets even worse and is surely a sign you should head to your nearest pan store ASAP! Why? A couple of reasons: you have definitely been breathing in fumes from the nonstick coating, chances are you have even eaten some of the coating as it chipped and stuck to your food, and because exposure to aluminum (that stuff you see under the scratches) has been connected to Alzheimer's Disease and other negative health outcomes (3).
What about my PFOA-, PFAS-, and PFTE- free pans? What do all the P's mean?
Well, essentially one word – bad! PFAS is an all-encompassing term for fluorinated products, and many companies will promise that their products are PFOA or PFTE free, but aren't actually free of all fluorinated chemicals since there are lots of them. As a general rule of thumb, anything that has a non-stick coating is going to contain fluorinated chemicals. We just haven't reached a point where magical properties in an added coating can be made safely (I know, I know, I'm sad too). The annoying thing with these non-stick coatings is that when you buy them, they are technically safe because it does not contain or give off any dangerous chemicals. However, the problem is when you heat these pans to high temperatures (which many of the pans say not to do if you read the fine print), the non-stick coating gets converted into a dangerous compound (in most cases, PFOA) which is then released into the air and into your food (4). Companies keep creating new compounds that they believe are safe, but there's really not enough information out there to know that they don't pose negative health effects further down the road. The best thing to do is say no to non-stick pans! It may be tough at first, but if you really think about it, non-stick pans aren't necessary for everything you do in the kitchen (I'm talking about you, my pasta pot)!
Does this apply to those magical "green" pans that I've been seeing everywhere?
Sadly, we're going to have to say that they aren't worth your time or money. These "green" pans are similar to how non-stick pans are made. They also have a metal base, again, generally aluminum. But this time, instead of a fluorinated coating, the metal base is covered in a ceramic coating. The coating is usually made of silicon and oxygen, and is there to act as a barrier between the metal base used for conducting heat and the food that you're cooking. The ceramic coating is free of PFOA and PFAS, which is what we're concerned about in Teflon, so maybe they are less toxic. But, studies and tons of user reviews have shown that these pans don't work, or basically stop working after a couple of weeks or months and then end up getting thrown away (5). Doesn't sound very "green" to us. In some cases, if you're purchasing green pans made out of the country, the ceramic coating may even contain lead and cadmium, which are not good for adults and children alike (6). Similar to non-stick pans, once the ceramic coating has been scratched or damaged, you really can't continue using it because the aluminum base is exposed and can get into your food. Bottom line, these aren't the magical answer.
So what should I use instead?
The great news is that you have options! We've done all the research to make your life easier. Here are some of our recommendations. If you're in shopping mode right now, we've also lined up a list of perfect pans for you in our roundup!
- Cast iron – can be made non-stick if seasoned properly and will last a lifetime. Great for everything except acidic foods
- Carbon steel – can be made non-stick if seasoned properly
- Stainless steel – can be made non-stick if properly heated and greased well
- Enamel cast iron – make for a very pretty pan
- Pure ceramic – can be used for all foods, even acidic ones!
Hopefully you agree with us now that non-stick is not the way to go. Not only does it have a short lifespan, but it also releases harmful toxics. Instead, try investing in some non-toxic cookware. The ones we recommended are great because they basically last forever (especially cast iron!). If you're still hooked on these magical "green" pans and want to buy ceramic, go for a pure ceramic cookware from a reputable brand and you're in good shape! So, what are you waiting for? Take all this new knowledge you've learned and spread the wealth at your nearest home goods shop!