First off, let me tell you that after doing a relatively quick review from some reliable sources, even I’m not sure exactly where to stand on the issue of non-stick or Teflon® pans. Suffice it to say that there is a good bit of controversy over where the truth stands. It’s funny how many life issues seem to be that way!
Frying pan (Photo credit: JPC24M)
Today’s article will give you a little bit from each source that I spent some time with and will hopefully leave you with enough information to choose where you stand. Or at least leave you with a conclusion on whether you are comfortable using non-stick pans or not!
Chemicals in Teflon® and Non-Stick Pans
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is the chemical that is used to make Teflon® pans, and what some people are concerned about regarding health. To be clear, according to the EPA, Teflon is not made of PFOA, but PFOA is
used as a processing aid in the manufacture of fluoropolymers, such as Teflon, and can be
also be produced by the breakdown of the material.
However, when it comes to PFOA in the production of cookware, I find that there are two distinct issues.
- Does using cookware produced with PFOA negatively affect someone’s health?
- Does the production of cookware produced with PFOA cause contamination of the environment, which in turn may end up in our bodies?
Question #1 is the one I think most people are wondering about in terms of what cookware they should use. However, when you start looking into it, you become more aware about question #2!
Let’s take question #1 first. As far as I can tell, it seems unlikely that you would be exposed to PFOA by using Teflon® or non-stick cookware at home. That is, unless you violate the conditions that it should be used in. The main condition regarding these pans is that the pan should not exceed 500 degrees. This is where the controversy comes in.
How do you know if you are cooking at 500 degrees on a stove top? Here is some useful information, from DuPont’s website (makers of Teflon®) regarding cooking and typical temperatures:
- Boiling point for water – 212°F
- Normal range for baking cookies, cakes etc. 325-400°F
- Normal range for pan-frying meat 400-470°F
- Roasting poultry or vegetables 450°F
- Broiling 500-550°F
Obviously, you will not want to use Teflon® when broiling! For pan-frying, the normal range gets pretty close to 500, and if you’re not carefully watching it, you could probably tip over 500 without too much burning. Also – if you tend to preheat a pan before putting the food in, it can heat up very quickly.
The Environmental Working Group did a study in 2003 on how hot pans get. Basically, they state that “a generic non-stick frying pan preheated on a conventional, electric stovetop burner reached 736°F in three minutes and 20 seconds, with temperatures still rising when the tests were terminated. A Teflon pan reached 721°F in just five minutes under the same test conditions.”
Clearly, there are some discrepancies on how hot the average consumer cooks their food. I think the interesting thing to know is that it’s the fumes coming off of a hot pan that are the most risk. If you eat flaked off Teflon®, it’s actually less of a concern as it is not digested and passes through (per DuPont).
Government Regulation of PFOA
The EPA put out an FAQ page about PFOA. They’re conclusions are a little confusing:
- They state that in 2005, “the Agency’s Science Advisory Board reviewed the information that was available at the time, and suggested that the PFOA cancer data are consistent with the EPA guidelines descriptor “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
- They also say that:”the information that EPA has available does not indicate that the routine use of consumer products poses a concern. At present, there are no steps that EPA recommends that consumers take to reduce exposures to PFOA.”
Basically, it seems that they are stating that PFOA is a known carcinogen but there aren’t things that consumers can do to reduce their exposure. That’s the kind of knowledge that leaves you feeling powerless!
The good news is that In 2006, the EPA put out a press release about PFOA, highlighting “a global stewardship program inviting companies to reduce PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid) releases and its presence in products by 95 percent by no later than 2010 and to work toward eliminating these sources of exposure five years after that but no later than 2015.”
I’ll leave it up to someone else to figure out how companies are doing with progress!
Take Home Message
For now, my take home is that if you’re using non stick pans at a low temperature (like you would do with boiling or low temperature stir-fry), it’s probably safe. But stay away from them if you cook at high temperature or tend to burn things a lot!
For us, we use nonstick pots to use for liquid foods. However, we replaced frying pans with stainless steel or cast iron.
We’ll cover the data for question #2 next time!