What's the Best Nontoxic Cookware?

From cast iron to ceramic and silicone to stainless steel—which cookware is harmful to your health and which are safe to use?
pasta and kale on a cast iron
Source: Photographer

The refrigerator is stocked with fresh veggies, the pantry is full of whole grains, and the windowsill is glowing with sun-kissed tomatoes and herbs. Yet the pots and pans hiding in the cabinets threaten to derail all your carefully laid efforts to eat healthy.

What’s the Problem with Nonstick?

Nonstick cookware is popular because it’s cheap and easy to clean. Yet behind that convenience lies a secret: many nonstick pots and pans are coated with Teflon, the brand name for polytetrafluoethylene (PTFE). Before it was banned in 2013, Teflon cookware was sold with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that has been linked to cancer, thyroid issues, damage to the immune and reproductive systems, high cholesterol, hypertension, and birth defects. While Teflon cookware is not made with PFOAs in the US anymore, it is made with other perifluorinated substances (PFAS) that have lesser-known effects. See the glossary on p. 14 for more on PTEE and PFAS.

All in all, the chemicals in nonstick cookware are better to keep out of your body. Teflon cookware typically lasts one to five years, so if it’s not scratched up or older, yours might be relatively safe to use at medium to low temperatures. If you’re not sure what your cookware is made of, but it is nonstick and not ceramic, cast iron, or carbon steel, it’s probably coated with Teflon or PFAS.
Ready to get nontoxic cookware now? We’ve created a list with some alternatives. Choose among these options based on your cooking habits and budget.

CAST IRON: 8” skillet starts at $13

Cast iron cookware is loved by generations for a reason—it is nonstick when seasoned properly; it’s durable and tolerates all stovetops, as well as the oven and broiler; and it’s easy to clean. Cast iron handles high heat well and can last for generations when treated right. It leaches iron, which is a necessary micronutrient and can be beneficial especially for vegans, vegetarians, and people who menstruate. Ask your doctor if you’re concerned about extra iron in your diet.

Watch out: Cast iron and Dutch ovens with a decorative coating may contain lead if it predates 1978, the year lead was outlawed in consumer goods. Cast iron can also be used to melt other metals, so if you have a vintage cast iron, get an inexpensive lead test to make sure it’s safe. One of the biggest disadvantages of cast iron is its weight—a 12 inch pan can weigh almost nine pounds—and that it needs to be seasoned regularly and should not be soaked in water.

STAINLESS STEEL: 8” 18/0 coated pan starts at $40

Stainless steel cookware can tolerate high heat on all stovetops, is durable, and is even safe to use in the oven. Be generous with oil or soak in the sink to make it easier to clean.

Watch out: Stainless steel cookware is stamped with numbers like “18/10,” which stands for 18% chromium and 10% nickel. The nickel makes the stainless steel corrosion- and rust-resistant, but a 2017 study in the National Library of Medicine shows that trace amounts of nickel may leach out when cooking acidic foods for several hours. If you prefer nickel-free stainless steel, purchase cookware with the numbers “18/0” for 18% chromium and 0% nickel—although the legal limit for “nickel-free” is 0.75%, so if you are very sensitive it might be best to avoid stainless steel altogether. 18/0 stainless steel pans may contain an aluminum core to conduct heat evenly and reduce the weight of the pan, and are safe to use.

CERAMIC: 8” ceramic-coated pan starts at $20

Ceramic does not leach toxic chemicals, is easy to clean, is safe to use on the stovetop, and 100% ceramic is safe to use in the microwave and oven. It is nonstick when used at low to medium temperatures, which is why crock pots and instant pressure cookers are often ceramic. Check out Xtrema{GBN} for 100% ceramic skillets, pots, Dutch ovens, and even tea ware.

Watch out: Cheap ceramic-coated pots and pans may have a nonstick coating of PTFE or PFAS. Check the label or contact its maker to make sure there’s no unwanted coatings to your ceramic cookware.

GLASS: Small saucepan starts at $25

Glass cookware is a safe, nontoxic option that does not leach chemicals and can be cleaned easily when soaked. The major disadvantage of glass cookware is that it can break if dropped or exposed to rapid changes in temperature. That’s why it is most often used in the oven, where the temperature change occurs evenly and slowly. Some pots are safe on the stovetop, but it’s best to check the seller’s use recommendations first.

CARBON STEEL: 8” carbon steel skillet starts at $20

Carbon steel is cast iron’s lighter cousin. It is made with 99% iron and 1% carbon, two nontoxic materials. Since it has no additional coatings, it doesn’t release toxic gases, although it does release iron like cast iron does. It tolerates all stove tops, ovens, and broilers, making it as versatile as a cast iron or stainless steel. Carbon steel pans usually have round walls, making them ideal for woks and stir-frying foods. With proper care, carbon steel can last generations.

What about silicone?

Silicone molds are a nonstick and reusable alternative for bakeware. Food-grade silicone was deemed safe by the FDA as of 1979, but a 2005 study by the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health found that silicone bakeware heated past 347 degrees Fahrenheit resulted in the release of chemicals. However, by the third round of testing, some bakeware released less chemicals, suggesting that manufacturers were not properly curing their products. LFGB certification is a stricter German standard for silicone testing, so look for the fork and knife symbol on products for higher-quality silicone.

Cheaply made silicone cookware can come with all sorts of additives and binding agents that are not always disclosed. The trick is to twist or pinch the silicone—if it turns white, it’s mixed with another material; if the color doesn’t change, it’s 100% silicone. Since there is no certified home test for pure silicone, the safest bet is to skip the silicone and use a longer-lasting nontoxic option.

Is copper toxic?

Lined copper cookware is safe to use at a moderate temperature. Most copper cookware is lined with nickel, stainless steel, or tin, which act as a barrier to protect the copper and your food. Tin is safe to use according to the US CDC because it does not remain in the body long enough to cause harm:

“There is no evidence that inorganic tin compounds affect reproductive functions, produce birth defects, or cause genetic changes. Inorganic tin compounds are not known to cause cancer.”

You would have to eat a lot of tin for it to cause stomach upset, and that’s likely not going to happen from a copper pan or pot. However, tin does wear down over time (especially at temperatures higher than 450 degrees F) so you may need to get a copper pot or pan re-tinned for it to continue being safe to use.

Unlined copper cookware is toxic. Copper toxicity looks like vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and generally being unwell. Copper is a reactive metal, so when exposed to air, it breaks down—like the Statue of Liberty, which is coated in copper and was not always green. As a cookware, unlined copper leaches into food. You can tell if the lining is starting to go bad if there are visible cracks and flakes. The best way to ensure a lining’s long life is by using soft utensils like wood, and not hard metal spatulas when cooking. Some copper that is not meant to be heated, like decorative bowls and trays, may not be lined, and it is best to not consume food from those.

From Green American Magazine Issue