One taste of hot tea in a Styrofoam cup and you know you're drinking more than tea. Even though the cup looks stable, it's not. And have you noticed how dried foods stored in plastic bags start to taste like plastic? It’s because food ions react with synthetic or metallic ions.
Avoid adding toxins to your foods. Here are guidelines for choosing—and using—healthy cookware. Quality cookware helps you maintain good health and, in some cases, even enhances flavor. It's also useful to know which foods most quickly react to plastic storage containers and to aluminum and cast-iron cookware.
There’s good reason why glass and ceramic beakers are used in a chemistry lab where it’s critical that containers don’t taint the experiment. Glass and ceramic are inert or non-reactive.
Before making your next kitchen purchase, consider the reactivity of various tools and cookware and, whenever possible, favor inert or non-reactive. Or, as second choice, use moderately reactive pots and utensils. As possible, avoid more reactive cookware.
Inert, Non-Reactive Cookware — A Superior Choice
Enamel is actually a fused glass surface. Le Creuset and Chantal are two quality enamel brands. With proper care, a fine enamel pot lasts a lifetime, whereas inexpensive enamel cookware from variety stores has such a thin enamel layer that it chips easily and is not worth its purchase price. Once chipped, discard enamel kitchenware or enamel fragments will find their way into your food and the underlying metal will react with food. If it’s affordable, favor enamel pots.
Glass coffee pots and casserole dishes are inert and affordable. Favor glass containers for storing food.
Bamboo steamers and paddles as well as wooden spoons, chopsticks and crockery are non-reactive and modestly priced.
Earthenware and ceramic are inert. Additionally, they emit a far-infrared heat, the most effective and beneficial heat for cooking, which enables a full range of subtle flavors to emerge. Primarily used for lengthy simmering or baking, these beautiful but breakable items require special handling. Examples of terra cotta earthenware include Spanish cazuelas and Romertopf casseroles. Ceramic casseroles and pie pans are available from your local potter. (Note: antique ceramic or earthenware pots may contain lead; do not use without testing. To test for lead, purchase a lead test kit for $10 at a hardware store.)
Paper Goods are, in some applications, effective. Line reactive aluminum cookie sheets or muffin tins with parchment paper or paper muffin cups. And for food storage, as is practical, favor waxed or butcher paper over plastic wrap or bags.
Silicon Cookware is inert, FDA approved and safe up to 428 degrees F. If heated above its safe range, silicon melts but doesn’t outgas toxic vapors. This is apparently because silicon is a manmade blend of sand and oxygen (versus a synthetic plastic). Brightly colored rubbery Silicon cookware includes baking pans, baking sheets, muffin tins, spatulas, ice cube trays, molds, rolling pins and more. It is the only non-reactive, non-stick material.
Moderately Reactive Cookware — A Good Choice
Stainless steel is the least reactive metal, and for many people, the most versatile and healthful cookware option. Of the various weights, heavy-gauge stainless or surgical steel is superior. It makes an acceptable set of basic pots, pans and bake ware. Remove food from metal as soon as it is cooked to minimize the food from developing a metallic taste. Once stainless steel has been scratched, through normal scouring, the leaching of metallic ions is more noticeable. Better yet, don't scour stainless cookware. When you've burned something onto the pot, cover the damage with baking soda or a strong detergent and let it rest for a day. The soda will "lift" off the scoarched food.
Carbon steel is inexpensive and is ideal for a wok or sauté pan because it rapidly conveys heat. To prevent rusting, carbon steel must be thoroughly dry when not in use.
Cast iron pots are good for quick breads, pancakes and crêpes and for sautéing vegetables. Do not, however, cook soups, liquids or acid foods in cast iron, as these foods leach harsh-tasting iron from the pot. Although a soup cooked in cast iron becomes iron-enriched, it’s not a bioavailable form of iron, and is therefore undesirable.
Reactive Cookware — Not Recommended
Nonstick cookware contains plastic polymers (silicon is the one exception). The surface of the original nonstick cookware, Teflon, was coated with the synthetic resin. In newer nonstick pans (such as ScanPan, Caphalon, Swiss Diamond and Circulon) the polymer commingles with the anodized metal surface. If heated to 500 degrees F., the polymers emit noxious fumes that are lethal to parakeets and certainly not healthy for humans.
Even though I never intend to boil a pot dry, I did so just last week. Had that pot been nonstick, its temperatures would have exceeded the safety limit. Nonstick surfaces first appeared in 1944. Prior to that, cooks minimized sticking by using lower temperatures and/or more fat or liquid. It’s doable today. And should something stick, elbow grease removes it. Please avoid all synthetic non-stick pans and utensils.
Aluminum enriches your food with aluminum to the detriment of your health. Cast aluminum is more stable and preferable to thin aluminum pans. Rather than wrapping a baked potato in aluminum foil, consider baking it directly on the oven rack or placing it in a covered casserole dish.
Plastic it’s easy to assess the reactivity of plastic in terms of its structure. The more flexible a plastic, the more it is reactive. Thus plastic wrap more quickly exchanges synthetic ions with food than does a flexible milk jug; and the latter is more reactive than a sturdy plastic container. Do not store foods in plastic containers that once contained chemicals. And, it’s not advisable to microwave food in plastic.
Incidentally, the poly-vinyl chloride (PVC) typically found in plastic wrap leaches a hormone-disrupting toxin, DEAH, into the surface layers of food. Additionally, PVC contains phthalates which accumulate in body tissues and damage the liver and lungs. Phthalates damage the reproductive organs of test animals. Note that phthalate migration from plastic wrap is increased by mechanical stress (bending, pressure, chewing), solvents such as fats, oils, saliva, and temperatures over 85° F.
To avoid ingesting the toxic bisphenol-a (BPAs), see the April 2 Update.
Foods Vary in their Reactivity
Do keep in mind that temperature affects reactivity. When hot, a food reacts more quickly than when it is cold. Thus, refrigeration deters uptake of metal or plastic ions.
Additionally, some foods are more reactive than others. Fat, acidic ingredients and water are more efficient absorbs than are protein and carbohydrates. Thus chicken fat more quickly sops up plastic polymers than does chicken flesh. While raw rice is a slow absorber, when cooked with water, oil, tomatoes and/or vinegar it more speedily uptakes foreign ions. This explains why quality oils, vinegar and wine are sold exclusively in non-reactive glass.
It’s not necessary or expedient to ban all plastic from your kitchen. However, you might explore creative ways to decrease your use of reactive products. An informed consumer is an empowered consumer. May this information serve you in skillfully upgrading and maintaining a healthy kitchen.