Tuesday, October 3, 2023

How safe are non-stick pans?

Teflon coating used in non-stick pans can lead to many problems. The article gives many guidelines on how to use non-stick cookware if you cannot avoid using it.

Executive Summary

Non-stick cookware is coated with Teflon, which prevents food from sticking to its surface. This can help reduce the use of oil in cooking.

Earlier, a toxic chemical called PFOA was used while coating the non-stick surfaces. This chemical is linked to liver toxicity, hypothyroidism, developmental problems, low immunity, infertility, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian disease, high cholesterol, hair loss, and a higher risk of liver, pancreatic, and thymus cancers.

PFOA is not used in the Teflon coating process anymore in the USA or Europe. However, it is still used in many developing countries and China during the production of non-stick cookware.

When a non-stick pan is heated to high temperatures, the Teflon coating can start degrading and release toxic fumes. They can cause a disease called polymer fume fever.

Buying high-quality and heavier utensils, protecting the Teflon coating, and not using the utensil for high-temperature cooking are some of the ways to protect against the problems of non-stick cookware. Read the article for more details.

Every now and then, we face the problem of food sticking to cooking utensils. Scrubbing such a residue off is a time-consuming process. The non-stick pans offer a simple way out of the predicament. But are they safe?

Depending on whom you listen to, the non-stick pans are implicated in minor problems such as hair loss and serious ones such as cancer. Some other experts claim that non-stick utensils are completely safe for use. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This article discusses those aspects.


Metal pans and pots are coated with a non-stick coating of a patented chemical called Teflon. You may have heard of the phrase ‘a Teflon personality‘. It refers to someone who is impervious to criticism or blame.

Teflon is the brand name for a compound called polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, which gives a waxy, glossy finish to the inner surface of the utensil.

Benefits of Teflon Coating

Teflon is chemically inert and does not react with food. So it can be used for coating cookware that comes in contact with any type of food item.

Teflon coating prevents food from sticking to the vessel’s surface. Often, cooking oil is used for similar purposes. These days, we have an increased health concern about the use of oil in foods. So, Teflon-coated vessels offer an attractive alternative for reducing the use of oil in cooking.

Teflon has good properties that allow coating it on a wide range of products. Such a coating is not very expensive either. So Teflon-coated utensils have become common around the world, including in low-income countries.

Health Hazards of Teflon Coating

Teflon by itself does not cause any harm. If you happen to swallow some of it, it passes through your digestive system. The health risks from Teflon mainly come from its coating on the metal pots.

PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid

During the coating process, a toxic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA is used. While most PFOA is eliminated by the high temperatures prevailing at the time of coating the vessels, some of it remains in the coating. If such pans are heated to very high temperatures, the Teflon coating can disintegrate and PFOA released into the air.

Exposure to PFOA can cause liver toxicity and developmental problems, reduce immunity, and raise the risk for liver, pancreatic, and thymus cancers.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer or IARC has classified PFOA as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ (Group 2B). The evidence used by them is that it can cause kidney and testicular cancers. IARC is part of the World Health Organisation or WHO.

PFOA is also linked to infertility and chronic kidney disease. PFOA leads to hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian disease or PCOD, and high cholesterol, all of which cause hair loss.

After noticing such problems in the early 2000s, producers of non-stick utensils gradually phased out PFOA from the Teflon coating process. Later, the use of PFOA was banned in Europe in 2008 and in the USA in 2014.

However, it still continues to be used in many developing countries as well as in China. For example, in a study done in Bangalore, India in 2016, eighty percent of people using non-stick cookware four to five times a week had a high level of PFOA in their blood. On the contrary, only fifteen percent of people using non-stick cookware one to two times a week had high PFOA in their blood. So one needs to be careful about using non-stick utensils if one does not know the country of their origin.

Incidentally, PFOA is also found in fast-food containers, toffee wrappers, pizza box liners, microwaveable popcorn bags, and stain-resistant carpets and clothes. As a result, these days, in Europe and the USA, non-stick cookware is not a significant source of PFOA exposure.

High-Temperature Cooking

Teflon coating starts deteriorating at temperatures of 260°C (500°F). It decomposes above 350°C (662°F).

If a utensil is preheated for even two minutes, it is quite likely that the Teflon coating will start releasing some toxic fumes. Such fumes are known to cause a condition called polymer fume fever or Teflon Flu.

Incidentally, both Teflon and PFOAs are part of a group of compounds called poly-fluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. They are referred to as forever compounds because they do not break down in nature. Once in your body, they do not break down either. Due to environmental pollution, most people already have them in their bodies.

The only advantage of not using PFOAs is that PFOAs are fat-soluble and their new alternatives used these days are water-soluble. All fat-soluble substances accumulate in the body fat, while water-soluble substances can be eliminated through urine.

Since PFASs do not break down, they stay inside the body permanently if they are fat-soluble (PFOAs) and are excreted through urine if they are water-soluble (the new substitutes).

Thus, the new substitute chemicals used in the coating process are also toxic but they don’t stay in the body for too long, unlike their PFOA brethren. Read more: We questioned whether nonstick cookware is safe. This is what we found.

Tips for Using Non-Stick Cookware

  1. Use higher-quality pans: Such pans may have a coating that is thicker or of multiple layers.
  2. Use heavier pans: Such pans take longer to heat, preventing possible overheating.
  3. Avoid preheating or high-heat: Avoid broiling, searing, or preheating in such pans.
  4. Protect the coating: Don’t use metal ladles, steel wools, or scrubbers that can scratch the coated surfaces. Store the utensils carefully to avoid getting them scratched. Discard the utensil if the coating is chipped. Replace the pans every two years, even if everything looks fine.
  5. Ventilate the kitchen: Ensure that the kitchen area is well ventilated.

To Read More

First published on: 20th June 2022
Image credit: Daria Obymaha on Pexels


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