Safer Cookware Swaps

The Slightly Greener Podcast | Episode 6

April 23, 2023

Welcome back to The Slightly Greener Life podcast! I’m so excited to talk about this topic today because I get this question a lot: what is the safest cookware?

So today I’ll be breaking down my favorite, and I’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know about cookware!

I also have to say that I don’t think there is a perfect non-toxic cookware. There are definitely options I recommend staying away from if possible, but when it comes to safer cookware you’ll see that having a couple of different types on hand is ideal.

When it comes to choosing cookware, there are a lot of overwhelming options out there. And we may not think about the fact that what we’re using to cook with can get into our bodies, but ingesting these chemicals through our cookware is definitely a route of exposure. This exposure can occur through heating, leaching of the chemicals into the food while cooking, or through breathing in fumes as the cookware is being heated. Chemicals can also leach into food if the cookware is scratched.

I know that this is a lot of info to take in in this episode, but I just like to explain why certain things should be avoided, or at least have reduced exposure, so that you can make your own decisions about what you want to avoid and when.

First, let’s talk about what to avoid and why. But just know that once we get past all this info – which can seem like a lot! – there are solutions.

Let’s start with non-stick pans. Now I know this one is going to hurt a bit – they’re so convenient and just scrub away clean so quickly, but that convenience does come at a cost!

The Dangers of Non-Stick Pans

Non-stick pans use a coating that can create toxic fumes when heated.

Teflon™ is probably a name you’re familiar with when it comes to nonstick surfaces – it’s the brand name DuPont trademarked for its nonstick coating.

But because not all non-stick coating is necessarily Teflon™, I’ll stick to just calling it non-stick.

One of the main problems with nonstick coating is that it uses PFAs (which is short for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or perfluorinated chemicals) which have been making the news lately, also known as “forever chemicals.” They’re called Forever chemicals because they are persistent in the environment, and in the body. Studies have shown that approx 98% of people have levels of PFAs in their body.

These chemicals are what make items water-proof and stain-resistant, and grease-resistant (like in food packaging), and that makes cookware nonstick.

One perfluorinated chemical in particular has commonly been used as a component of nonstick coatings, which is PFOA (which is short for per-fleur-o-ock-tah-noic acid). This chemical is also known as C8, which means it has 8 carbon atoms in its chemical structure, and it considered to be long-chain, making it harder to break down in the environment, part of the reason why it’s so persistent. PFOA has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, hormone disruption, immune system issues, developmental problems, liver damage, and thyroid disease.

Because of these health effects, PFOA, or C8, was phased out in 2013. However, in some non-stick coatings it has been replaced by Per-floor-o-hexa-noic acid) also known as C6, which is suspected of having similar health effects. C6 has 6 carbon atoms in its chemical structure, and is considered to be a short chain perfluorinated chemical, which breaks down faster in the environment meaning it may not be as persistent, but has many of the same health concerns.

PTFE: Not a Safer Substitute

Teflon today uses PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) in place of PFOA, and PTFE belongs to a subgroup of PFAS called fluorinated polymers. But according to tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, in as little as two minutes on the stovetop “cookware coated with Teflon and other non-stick surfaces can exceed temperatures at which the coating breaks apart and emits toxic particles and gasses linked to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pet bird deaths and an unknown number of human illnesses each year.” Teflon™ itself even recommends not cooking on Teflon™ pans with pet birds nearby.

While PTFE is considered to be relatively inert and non-toxic, you can see that there are still concerns about the potential harmful effects of PTFE and its by-products under certain conditions.

When PTFE is heated to high temperatures, such as during cooking, it can release toxic fumes and particles that can be harmful. These effects are commonly known as “Teflon flu” or  “PTFE Toxicosis,” especially in birds, but it can affect humans too, causing flu-like symptoms, like headache, fever, and chills, and it can also cause respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia.

And when you pre-heat a pan or turn a burner on high heat, it’s possible that harmful toxins are emitted into the air.

Even if you do keep the temperature lower and at “safe” level, the chemicals can still leach over time due to wear and tear or if the pans gets damaged or scratched.

PTFE also doesn’t break down easily, meaning that it’s persistent in the environment.

Here are some safety tips for using non-stick cookware if you can’t part with it yet:

Don’t preheat empty pans, because the high temperature can cause harmful gasses to be released.

Use non-scratch utensils (so don’t damage/scratch cookware)

Ok that was A LOT of info, so thanks for sticking with me on that! That is the longest section but so many people use non-stick that I felt I had to add a lot of info there to help you make an educated decision.

Aluminum Cookware

Next up for cookware to avoid is aluminum.

I also recommend steering clear of aluminum cookware, because studies have shown that aluminum and heavy metals from cookware can leach into foods, and although the amount of aluminum that leaches into food is generally considered to be small, some research suggests that over time, exposure to even small amounts of aluminum may be linked to health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

A study published in the journal Toxicology Research showed that cooking with Aluminum pots could lead to the leaching of heavy metals into food, and pose mutagenic and genotoxic risks to consumers, meaning that they have the potential to damage DNA. For this study, researchers boiled water in 3 different aluminum pots by the same brand, but one was 6 years old, one was 3 years old, and one was new. They found Cadmium, Copper, Arsenic, Nickel, Lead, and Aluminum were present in all the test water samples at concentrations that were higher than the maximum limit allowable by standard regulatory organizations. The 6-year-old aluminum pot induced the highest toxicity risk, followed by the 3-year-old aluminum pot. The findings of this study found that cooking with Aluminum pots could lead to the leaching of heavy metals into food, posing health risks.

Aluminum is also a reactive metal, which means it can react with acidic foods like tomatoes, vinegar, and citrus juices. This can cause the cookware to discolor and that can cause a metallic taste to food because of the increased aluminum released and absorbed by the food.

And the longer the food is heated or stored in aluminum pans, the more aluminum that is absorbed.

For these reasons, aluminum is another type of cookware that I recommend avoiding.

Safer Cookware Options

I need to preface this section by saying that there’s not necessarily one type of safer cookware that fits all. It typically depends on the food you’re cooking, the cooking time, and the temperature you’ll be cooking at.

So here are some safer options and how to best use them:

Cast Iron

First up is Cast iron. This is a good option because it stays hot longer, the seasoning on cast iron pans makes it naturally non-stick, and it’s durable, potentially lasting for years if taken care of correctly. It’s also easy to clean and holds heat well.

However, one health benefit of cast iron can also be its drawback: cooking with cast iron can leach small amounts of iron into food. This can be a good thing if you need more iron in your diet, but if you already have high levels, or have a health condition such as hemachromatosis (a type of iron overload), you may want to avoid using cast iron. For that reason, it’s best-used sautéing vegetables and for baking, and should not be used for cooking acidic foods, such as tomatoes, lemon or lime juice because the acidity of these foods can can break down the seasoning in the pan and can leach more iron into food. A longer cooking time also increased the absorption of iron into food, so avoiding cooking foods in cast iron that require a longer cooking time.

To keep cast iron naturally non-stick, season it after each use (look at manufacturer’s instructions for how to season your pans and how often), and don’t scrub with anything abrasive. Use the recommended cleaning (here is an example for Lodge Cast Iron) and scrubbing instructions that the manufacturer recommends to keep your cookware free of scratches and damage, and to help it last for years.

Another drawback to cast iron is the weight – they can be pretty heavy! Which makes it not a great option for some people.

A good alternative that is similar to cast iron without the weight is carbon steel. It has similar features in that it needs to be seasoned (which makes it naturally non-stick if seasoned correctly), it holds high heat well, and cooking acidic foods should be avoided because of the potential of leaching iron into the food, as well as damaging the seasoned coating. Carbon steel combines the best qualities of cast iron with stainless steel (which we’ll talk about next), minus the heavy weight which makes it a better option for some people.

Look for brands like Lodge and Stargazer.

Stainless Steel

This is typically a safe option and can typically withstand higher heat than non-stick pans. But again, there are concerns about chemicals leaching into foods. The reason is that Stainless steel contains the metals nickel and chromium in its composition, too. The part that makes it “stainless” is the addition of chromium. The addition of nickel to stainless steel cookware improves its performance and durability, making it a popular choice for cooking and food preparation. But under certain instances, the nickel can leach into the food especially with high acidity foods like tomatoes, wine, or citrus juices, which is a concern for some people who have a nickel sensitivity.  If a nickel sensitivity allergy is a concern, this may not be the best option for cookware.

Do not use stainless steel when damaged or scratched, as that can cause nickel exposure as well.

To be on the safer side, look on the bottom of the stainless steel pan. The first number is chromium, followed by the nickel content. Ideally look for 18/8 or 18/0—the second number represents the percentage of nickel, and the “8” and the “0” indicate the lowest percentage of nickel possible.

Look for safer brands like 360 Cookware.


One thing in common you’ve seen – or heard – in these safer cookware options is that cooking acidic foods like tomatoes, vinegar, wine, and citrus juices can break down surfaces and increase the amount of chemicals leached into foods.

If you are cooking with one of these acidic foods, go for tempered glass. It’s a great, safer alternative, and cracking should not be a concern unless it is being exposed to extremely high cooking temps. And it’s easy to find things like loaf pans and casserole dishes made out of glass.

Some brands to look at are Pyrex for baking, and Visions cookware for pots and pans.

Ceramic Coated: Use with Caution

There is one more type of cookware that I’d like to mention that has gained popularity over the past few years, and that is ceramic. There are some popular ceramic brands out there but due to not knowing what the coating is, they might be an OK alternative to traditional non-stick pots and pans, but I would not consider it to be the best non-toxic option. There’s also a lawsuit that was brought against one of the cookware companies for making claims about their coating being non-toxic, when it did potentially contain some chemicals that are considered to be toxic. Safer Cookware

There are two different types of ceramic cookware: pure ceramic cookware and cookware that is covered with a ceramic-like coating. If you do choose to use ceramic, look for the pure ceramic cookware. Ceramic-covered cookware is made with polymer materials that look like ceramic. But only the pure ceramic option has a chance of less leaching of heavy metals.

There are a couple of brands that do conduct 3rd party testing that have come back with good results, like Xtrema cookware, but the problem is that a lot of times these pans don’t last as long as regular cookware because the ceramic coating may wear down quicker than other coating. So for these reasons, I would now recommend one of the other safer options instead.

Tips for Safely Using Cookware 
  • Don’t preheat pans without food or liquid in them.
  • Cook at a lower heat, especially if using non-stick pans.
  • Don’t store leftovers in pans, especially acidic foods – chromium, nickel, and iron can leach into foods when stored.
  • Don’t cook with acidic foods in stainless steel and cast iron. Use glass to cook these foods.
  • Replace cookware that has visible scratches, flaking, or damage.
How to Replace Cookware

I know it can be expensive to replace cookware, so here are the steps I recommend: rather than dump all your cookware and having to replace it all at the same time, do it in stages.

Start by getting rid of your non-stick cookware that is scratched or if the lining has begun chipping or flaking (because again, this can cause leaching of chemicals into foods).

I would also suggest getting rid of old pans you suspect might be about 10 years old now. That would be nonstick coating that could contain PFOA.

So replace damaged and old cookware first, then when you’re ready, here’s where the “Choose Your Top Two” rule comes in again. Choose your one or two most-used nonstick pots and pans, or cookie sheets, and muffin tins. Replace the ones that you use the most first, and then work your way up from there.

I won’t go into all the details here for time’s sake, but make sure when you are disposing these pots and pans that you do it safely. Because of the chemicals, they shouldn’t just be thrown away. I won’t go into all of the safe disposing tips here just for time’s sake, but you can find it on my website at

Disposing of Toxic Cookware Safely

When you do decide to part with your nonstick cookware, it needs to be disposed of safely due to the toxic nature of the coating.

There are a couple of different ways to dispose of them safely:

  • Check to see if the manufacturer will take the used cookware back as part of their recycling program.
  • See if a scrap metal yard or a household waste facility will take them. Google either of these options along with your area to find a facility near you, and contact them to see if they’ll take non-stick cookware.
  • Terra Cycle – there is a moderate cost for this service, but they have several options for their Kitchen Gear Zero Waste Box. Check their website for many other recycling options that are both free and paid if you’re ready to clean out some drawers and closets!
Overall Safety Tips
  • Don’t preheat pans without food or liquid in them
  • Cook at a lower heat, especially if using non-stick pans
  • Don’t store foods in pans, especially acidic foods – chromium, nickel, and iron leached can leach into foods when stored
  • Replace cookware that has visible scratches or damage
  • When you’re buying new cookware, avoid labels that say PFOA-free because it may use another type of toxic non-stick coating


  • Non-stick cookware can contain harmful chemicals and the newer coatings that have replaced the ones previously banned still have health concerns. Nonstick cookware that is over 10 years old should be disposed of safely, because it most likely contains PFOA , which was phased out in 2013.
  • Studies have shown that aluminum from cookware can leach aluminum into foods aluminum is linked to Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Cast iron is very durable and handles high temperatures well, and is naturally non-stick if the seasoning is kept intact. Because of the potential of leaching iron into the food, it’s best for baking and sautéing vegetables. Avoid cooking acidic foods in cast iron.
  • Stainless steel has nickel and chromium concerns leaching. Don’t use when scratched, or with high acidity foods like tomatoes. It can withstand higher heat than non-stick pans. On the bottom of the cookware you will see numbers. The first number is chromium, followed by the nickel content. Ideally look for 18/8 or 18/0
  • Glass is a good option for cooking those acidic foods like tomato sauces, wine, and citrus juices.
Non-Toxic Cookware

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