How cookware affects your health

October 5, 2015

What's worse for you: a juicy steak loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol, or the skillet you fry it in? Simmering concerns about safety have long plagued aluminum and nonstick cookware. These guidelines will help you make the right decision when buying cookware.

How cookware affects your health

1. Does eating food cooked in aluminum pots and pans cause Alzheimer's disease?

No. Suspicions that aluminum cookware causes dementia once reached a boil, but later studies have turned down the heat on this controversy.

Worries about aluminum pots and pans have been around for decades. In 1965, a study showed that injecting aluminum into rabbits' brains caused damage resembling the changes that occur in humans with Alzheimer's disease. Later studies revealed that people who have Alzheimer's often have large metal deposits in their brains. Before long, home chefs around the world began replacing their aluminum cookware.

Today, some won't even heat up leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil. When you cook with an aluminum pot or pan, a tiny amount of the metal can leach into food, but your body is exposed to other sources of aluminum all day. It's in the air and drinking water as well as soft drink cans, cosmetics and some antacids.If you have sworn off aluminum cookware, you should toss out your tea bags, too — the hot brew is a rich source of the metal. Yet Alzheimer's disease is not rampant in countries where tea is popular. Likewise, studies do not consistently show that people who work in aluminum factories have high rates of dementia. And the early research indicating that Alzheimer's patients have high levels of aluminum in their brains has been challenged by more recent studies suggesting that's not the case.

Scientists say that more research is needed to know if exposure to aluminum increases Alzheimer's risk, though most agree that at worst, it poses a minor threat.

2. Can fumes given off by nonstick cookware make you sick?

Yes. When the pans are heated to very high temperatures, they can give off fumes that cause flu-like symptoms. First, the bad news for parakeets and cockatiels: when heated to high temperatures, the coating on nonstick cookware can break down and send particles into the air, producing fumes that are toxic — often fatal — to a winged one's lungs. Remember that small birds have sensitive respiratory systems, which is why miners took canaries into coalmines to help detect noxious gases. Of course, you and your family inhale the same fumes, which can cause symptoms such as a cough, headache, and chills that may last a few days and are often mistaken for the flu. Doctors have known about "polymer-fume fever" since at least the early 1950s.

You can avoid getting sick and protect your pet bird, if you have one, by not overheating nonstick pots and pans. DuPont, the maker of Teflon, says that its nonstick coating may begin to deteriorate at 260°C (500°F). The company recommends using low to medium heat when cooking with nonstick pots and pans. Scientists are currently studying whether chemicals used to make nonstick cookware cause more serious health concerns for humans. Perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) causes cancer in lab rats, and some research shows that babies born to women with high levels of the chemical in their blood tend to be small. Yet most people have PFOA in their blood — not surprising, since the chemical is used in many products, such as carpets, furniture and clothing.

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