Cookware for a healthy kitchen

Peek into anyone's cookware cupboard, and you'll spot pots and pans crafted from a variety of metals and plastic containers nestled inside of glass and ceramic casserole dishes. In some circumstances, the foods you cook may absorb materials from the pots and pans in which you cook them.

But with health and safety factors being about equal, the choice of which material your cookware will be made from really depends on your personal taste and cooking style.

If your cookware is made from stainless steel...
You're using the most popular type of cookware in North America. And it's popular for good reasons – stainless steel cookware is safe, durable, and versatile. Stainless steel is made of a variety of metals, including iron, chromium, and nickel. These three could affect your health in high doses. These metals may find their way into our foods but, unless the stainless steel cookware is dinged or pitted, they are in such small amounts that there is no real cause for concern.

Tip: While it's safe to cook acidic foods, like tomatoes, in stainless steel cookware, once food is cooked, store in a different container that's not made of stainless steel.

If your cookware is made from aluminum...
Aluminum cookware is lightweight, affordable, and conducts heat well. But fewer cooks use it than stainless steel. That could be because of the fear that aluminum increases a person's risk of Alzheimer's disease (no definitive evidence has been found) or due to general fears of aluminum in food (only 1 mg to 2 mg from aluminum pots and pans; the World Health Organization says adults can safely consume 50 mg per day). Also, most aluminum cookware is anodized, meaning its surface has been made scratch-resistant and thus less likely to leach out into food.

Tip: Aluminum is not a good choice for slow-cooking. Also, choose a different type of cookware for dealing with acidic foods and green leafy vegetables, which absorb more aluminum from pots and pans than do other foods.

If your cookware is made from silicone...
More and more kitchen tools and gadgets are being made from silicone, a synthetic material akin to rubber. You might see more utensils made from the material, but silicone cookware and bakeware are available. So far, no health hazards have been noted.

Tip: Silicone will melt above 220 °C (428 °F), so choose another material for very high-heat recipes.

If your cookware is made from cast iron...
You may have inherited a cast iron skillet or frying pan from your grandmother. Decades ago, it was the cooking material of choice. Though it takes some patience to wait for it to heat up, sturdy cast iron distributes heat evenly, making it a good choice for frying, cooking eggs, or baking cornbread. If well-seasoned and well-cared for, cast iron's surface stays naturally non-stick. Like stainless steel, cast iron can add iron to foods when cooked, but at levels that are safe for most people.

Tip: Learn how to properly care for your cast iron cookware to prevent damages to the surface. No suds required for scrubbing them clean – just hot water and a stiff brush, followed by a coat of cooking oil. Your grandmother may have used lard or bacon grease to season her cast iron cookware – saturated fats are less likely to go rancid – but olive oil will do in a pinch.

If your cookware is made from copper...
Copper cookware looks lovely hanging from hooks in gourmet kitchens. More than decorative, they're a go-to choice for cooks looking for precision and quick, even heating. Problem is, copper can be easily scratched, making the metal more likely to get into foods through cooking. If you bought a copper pot or pan in Canada, it should be coated to protect food from the copper. If you inherited vintage copper or brass pots or pans, save them for the wall - not for the stovetop.

Tip: Clean copper cookware gently, since the surface protectant can be scraped away. Don't use badly scratched copper cookware.

If your cookware is made from ceramic, enamel, or glass...
Glazed ceramic cookware gives the kitchen a homey feeling, while glazed enamelware evokes campfire memories. But the materials used to cover the surface of these items can be harmful to our health. So Canada imposes strict guidelines for the levels of lead and cadmium allowed in ceramic cookware, enamelware, as well as glassware.

Tip: Travellers who collect glazed ceramic should be cautioned that not all countries impose the same strict guidelines. Use items purchased abroad with caution or else use them decoratively.

What about non-stick coating?
Non-stick surfaces are applied to many pots and pans these days, making them easier to cook with and a cinch to clean. Since you can cook with little or no butter or oil, non-stick is a frequent choice of those on heart-healthy diets. But safety concerns have made consumers think twice about the convenience.

A synthetic chemical, of which small amounts are used to produce non-stick products, has been deemed a "likely carcinogen" linked to cancer in rats. No human risk has been found. There is no risk of exposure to this synthetic chemical from using non-stick cookware since it is used in the manufacturing process and doesn't remain in the cookware after manufacturing. The only risk associated with non-stick coatings is if heated at temperatures higher than 350 °C (650 °F), such as what might happen if an empty pot or pan is left on the burner. Irritating and poisonous fumes can emit.

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