Most of us love nonstick cookware because you don’t have to slather on butter and oil to keep food from sticking—saving you some calories—and it requires no scrubbing whatsoever so you’re out of the kitchen faster.
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Unfortunately, there are potential risks to some types of non-stick surfaces known as Teflon. “The fluoropolymer coating of the nonstick cookware can release some carcinogenic chemicals, like perfluorooctanoic acid (C8), upon heating,” explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., environmental toxologist at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center. “C8 can be released at normal cooking temperatures, but at very high temperatures, the fluoropolymer coating can peel off and contaminate foods.”
These chemicals have been linked to a variety of adverse health effects including smaller weight and size in newborn babies, high cholesterol, abnormal thyroid levels, liver inflammation and a weakened immune system, according to the Environmental Working Group.
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“There is even something called ‘teflon flu,’ which is a flu-like illness that occurs when people inhale these toxic fumes,” adds Susan Blum, M.D., assistant clinical professor of preventative medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Symptoms of this “flu” include chills, fever and headaches. That’s the bad news. The good is that there are ways you can protect yourself:
• Don’t preheat cookware at a high heat temperature. The pan tends to reach high temps more quickly when it’s empty, releasing the harmful chemicals. Instead, heat at the lowest temperature possible to cook your food safely.
• Use only low to medium heat to avoid the release of toxic fumes.
• Prep new cookware. “Wash the pans well and boil water [in them] and discard that water a few times to get rid of C8 release when the pan is relatively new,” says Kannan.
• Keep the exhaust fan on so that airborne release of potentially toxic fumes can be vented out.
• Find safer options, such as non-stick cookware that doesn’t contain the harmful chemicals, as well as pots and pans made from different materials, such as ceramic and stainless steel. Check out our gallery of the healthiest cookware options.
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