Cooking with nonstick pans can make frying and heating foods a breeze. Cleanup can also be much easier with nonstick cookware because food doesn’t stick as much or create hard residues. But are there any health concerns associated with using nonstick cookware, specifically when it comes to cancer risk?
Here, learn why concerns over using nonstick cookware exist, what the current research says about nonstick cookware and cancer risk, and how to shop for and use these products wisely.
What are nonstick pans made with?
Nonstick pans come in 2 varieties: traditional nonstick pans, which are coated with synthetic chemicals, and ceramic nonstick pans, which are made of aluminum or other materials and are coated with silicon dioxide or sand. Most health concerns around nonstick cookware focus on traditional nonstick pans, as ceramic nonstick pans do not typically contain synthetic chemicals. If you buy a ceramic pan, it might state on the label that it is free from these man-made chemicals.
Traditional nonstick pans may be best known for using the brand name coating Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE was originally discovered by a scientist in 1938 and was marketed for many different industries, including coating cookware. PTFE is part of a large class of man-made chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). There are thousands of different kinds of PFAS, which are commonly used in cookware and food packaging, such as takeout containers and microwave popcorn bags. The ability of PFAS to resist oil, stains, water, and heat make them ideal for many other products, too, including water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant carpets, and foam to fight fires.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized PFAS for use in cookware, food packaging, and food processing. In cookware, PFAS molecules are applied at very high temperatures to bind them to surfaces. During this process, smaller PFAS molecules that could migrate into food are vaporized. According to the FDA’s website, studies show that nonstick coatings contain negligible amounts of PFAS that can contaminate foods.
What kinds of PFAS are found in nonstick cookware?
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they are very difficult to break down or destroy. They can leak into the soil and water, accumulating for long periods of time. Humans and animals can also ingest these chemicals, which can remain in the body at length.
Two of the most well-known and well-studied PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). However, production and importation of these 2 chemicals were phased out in the mid-2000s because of their environmental and health impacts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But that hasn’t stopped the production of other PFAS. Instead of PFOA or PFOS, nonstick cookware may contain any of thousands of other new PFAS compounds. Scientists are now examining the environmental and health effects of these new types of PFAS. For example, one type of PFAS used in nonstick coatings and other products was found in drinking water near a chemical plant in North Carolina in 2017, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services website.
Can ingesting PFAS increase your cancer risk?
Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have them in their blood, especially PFOS and PFOA, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which has measured blood PFAS in the U.S. population since 1999-2000. However, the levels of PFAS found in the blood have declined since samples first started being taken.
A 2022 committee report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences concluded that exposure to PFAS, particularly PFOA and PFOS, has been linked to multiple cancers, according to organizations such as the EPA, ATSDR, and International Agency for Research on Cancer. In the report, the authors note that there was sufficient evidence to support that PFAS may affect the risk of developing kidney cancer and limited evidence that PFAS may affect the risk of developing breast cancer or testicular cancer. Exposure to PFAS has also been linked to other health issues, including thyroid problems, small changes in birth weight, and high cholesterol levels.
However, exposure to PFOA and PFOS through consumer products is usually low, according to the ATSDR website, especially when compared with exposure through drinking contaminated water. Eating animals or food from areas near PFAS manufacturers could also expose you to these chemicals. Firefighters or other people who work with fluorochemicals can also come into contact with PFAS in their jobs.
It is important to note that assessing the health threats of PFAS is challenging. This is because differences between chemicals, unknown exposure levels, and the myriad causes of chronic diseases like cancer can make pinpointing the harms of PFAS difficult, according to the National Academies of Sciences’ report. Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about your individual exposure to PFAS.
What should I look for in cookware?
It may be difficult to know what type of PFAS is used in your cookware. For example, a pan that says it’s PFOA-free could, in theory, still contain other PFAS. The environmental and health effects of making, use, and disposing of PFAS has prompted several states, such as California and Colorado, to begin banning the sale of products containing PFAS, including cookware.
If you’re concerned about PFAS in your nonstick cookware, one option is to shop for pans that are ceramic and indicate that they are free of PTFE, PFOA, and PFAS. Stainless steel cookware that is not nonstick can also be an option.
“Cookware and food storage products are designed for a certain use. Use them as designed, and they can make your life easier without causing harm.” – Julie Lanford, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, a registered dietitian and the author and creator of CancerDietitian.com
Whatever you decide to use, be sure to follow the instructions included with your cookware, and do not exceed the recommended maximum temperature, which could harm your food and pans. Also, use only recommended utensils with the cookware to avoid scratches and other damage, and clean the cookware according to the package instructions.
If your nonstick cookware has scrapes, gouges, or the coating is peeling off, throw it away to reduce the risk of PFAS contaminating your food.
The information in this post is based on the current research and expert opinions available today. These findings may change as more research into this topic emerges.