Are Nonstick Pans Unhealthy?

Are nonstick pans unhealthy? There’s been a lot of confusion on the subject over the years, because using nonstick cookware is very different than using the cast iron skillets that many of us grew up with. In fact, the first nonstick pan I owned was the one I received in college after opening up a checking account on campus. That pan, like so many other misused nonstick skillets, started peeling and flaking after about 3 months of frequent cooking on high heat using the metal spatula I had purchased at Goodwill.

At SuperFoods, we encourage cooking with only a small amount of oil, so learning to safely use nonstick pans is essential to living a SuperFoods HealthStyle. I use nonstick pans to cook eggs and sauté spinach with only a very small amount of olive oil. For cooking chicken or other meat, I prefer to use a stainless steel skillet because I have found that nonstick skillets don’t brown food as well. Either way, I try to use as little oil as possible when cooking.

However, when talking about safety, we need to address the Teflon controversy.

Teflon and other nonstick surfaces are made from a fluoropolymer paint that is manufactured using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA is mostly removed during the production of the nonstick coating, but some studies have suggested that there may be trace amounts of PFOA in the final coating. There are currently no known human health effects caused by PFOA, but studies are ongoing. At high levels, PFOA is likely to be a carcinogen, but the science is lacking.

Consumer Reports performed laboratory studies on nonstick pans and found that new and used pans heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit released very little PFOA. When nonstick coatings are overheated, the surface will begin to degrade and release fumes. This occurs when temperatures exceed 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well above any reasonable cooking point. Lesson here: Don’t leave your nonstick pan on high heat and walk away. You’re more likely to die from a fire than from the PFOA.

The truth is that most of our exposure to PFOA comes from environmental contamination from the manufacturing, use, and disposal of electronic parts, oil-resistant coatings, and waterproof fabrics, not from the use of pots and pans. Arguably, this means that the production of Teflon causes some of the environmental exposure that ends up in our food supply and water, but at this time the FDA does not consider the use of nonstick cookware a significant PFOA exposure source.

The FDA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have both examined the scientific data regarding nonstick coatings and deemed the surfaces safe for conventional kitchen use. Teflon has been used for over 40 years, in more than 40 countries. There is only one report of reversible, flu-like symptoms in a human after a nonstick pan was severely overheated. There are also reports of domesticated birds dying after empty nonstick pans were left on the stove on high heat, but birds have a very sensitive respiratory system and probably shouldn’t be kept in the kitchen.

Guidelines for Using Nonstick Pots and Pans Properly

  • Read the use and care information that comes with your cookware.
  • If you purchase a loose pan, check the brand’s website for this information.
  • Unless otherwise indicated, avoid using metal spatulas and utensils which may damage the coating when cooking with a nonstick pan. Use silicone or plastic utensils.
  • Clean the pans in the sink using mild detergent and a sponge or plastic scrubber. Do not use Brillo pads, steel wool, or metal scrubbers on nonstick surfaces. Generally, nonstick cookware should not be put in the dishwasher.
  • Don’t use nonstick pans if you don’t need to. Reserve your nonstick for eggs, vegetables, and other foods that stick easily to pans. You don’t need a nonstick pan to boil water for pasta. Use a stainless steel pot on high heat to boil water—you can add a little oil to the water to keep pasta from sticking to the bottom or sides, if you need to.
  • Don’t overheat your nonstick pans. Cook on low or medium heat, and do not leave your pans unattended, especially when empty.
  • Turn off the heat as soon as you are done cooking.
  • When the nonstick surface appears scratched or pitted, it is time to get a new pan. While flakes of Teflon are inert and not poisonous, we shouldn’t be eating them. Remember, nothing lasts forever — even if the company is offering a lifetime warranty.
  • If oils or fats are smoking, then the pan is too hot. Never preheat your pans on high heat. High heat is unnecessary for typical cooking.