Most of us strive to make healthier choices in the kitchen every day by taking small steps such as choosing organic food, eliminating refined sugars or increasing our intake of whole grains. But what about the way we cook and store food? Although we may not put as much thought into the items we use to prepare our meals and store our leftovers, those pots, pans and storage containers could be undermining our best efforts at choosing healthier food by potentially increasing the amount of toxins we consume and causing adverse effects on our health and the environment. Here are some of the most common hazardous chemicals that can creep into our food via cookware, dinnerware, and food packaging and storage containers—and the simple steps you can take to avoid them and keep a healthy kitchen.
What it is: Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a polymer found in Teflon coating and other nonstick cookware, as well as fast food wrappers, pizza boxes and the lining of microwave popcorn bags. It belongs to a toxic class of chemicals known as perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which are widely used to repel grease, water and stains on many products including food packaging, clothing and carpet.
Potential dangers: At high temperatures, Teflon and other nonstick surfaces can break down and release potentially hazardous fumes and particles into the air, which can trigger flulike symptoms in humans and kill pet birds. PFCs have been linked with low-birth-weight babies, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation, early menopause and reduced immune function. Nonstick coatings can also contain residues of perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), a likely human carcinogen that is extremely persistent in the body and environment.
How to avoid it: Eight companies, including the makers of Teflon nonstick cookware, have agreed to phase PFOA out of their products by 2015, but PTFE remains a concern. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet is a safe alternative. With proper maintenance (read more in "Give Your Cast Iron a Little TLC"), cast iron develops a wonderful nonstick surface.
If you do continue to use nonstick cookware, use these tips to reduce your PTFE exposure: Cook on the lowest heat possible; never leave an empty pan on a hot burner; use wood or bamboo utensils to avoid scratching the surface; handwash pots and pans; and never use abrasive cleaning products.
Eliminate or cut back on fast food and other greasy foods that come in PFC-treated wrappers. Immediately remove food from wrappers and transfer it to plates or glass storage containers. Pop popcorn on the stovetop; microwaveable popcorn bags are often treated with PFCs.
What is it: Lead is a highly toxic metal. Although the most common source of exposure is from paint in homes and buildings built before 1978, lead can also be found in the kitchen. Lead is used in the glazing on some ceramic dinnerware and pottery, and it can leach into drinking water through plumbing materials.
Potential dangers: Lead accumulates and stays in the body for a long time, and even small amounts of lead can be harmful—especially for fetuses and young children. Lead poisoning in children has been linked to learning disabilities, developmental delays and lower IQ scores. In adults, symptoms include high blood pressure, headaches, memory loss, muscular weakness and abdominal pain.
How to avoid it: The FDA regulates the sale of dinnerware that leaches lead, but if you want to be extra safe, ask manufacturers if their dishes meet the stricter standards set in California Proposition 65. If you’re aiming to eliminate lead, be especially cautious with the types of ceramics and pottery most likely to contain it, which include items that are handmade; antique; excessively worn or damaged; orange, red or yellow; or made in other countries. To confirm that your dishes are safe, use a lead-testing kit (available at hardware stores or online). Until you’re in the clear, do not use questionable dishes to heat or store food or to serve highly acidic foods and drinks such as spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, orange juice and coffee.
Lead-testing kits are also available for tap water. If your water contains levels higher than 15 parts per billion, you should take action to minimize your exposure (learn more at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The EPA makes the following recommendations to reduce lead exposure: Use cold water to prepare food and drinks; flush water outlets used for drinking or food preparation; and clean debris out of outlet screens and faucet aerators on a regular basis. You can also read more about lead and water filters that may help protect your drinking water in A Guide to Safe Drinking Water for the Home.
What it is: Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical found in many kitchen products including cutting boards, countertops, dish towels, plastic food storage containers, sponges and liquid hand soap.
Potential dangers: Triclosan accumulates in our bodies and is linked to skin and eye irritation, liver toxicity and hormone disruption. Triclosan can also accumulate in waterways, killing beneficial bacteria that contribute to healthy ecosystems. For a healthy kitchen, the American Medical Association advises against using triclosan in the home because it may contribute to the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
How to avoid it: Avoid antibacterial products, which may be labeled with terms such as “antibacterial,” “fights germs,” “protects against mold,” “odor-fighting” or “keeps food fresher, longer.” Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with plain soap and water. Skip antibacterial cutting boards, which are often made with petroleum-based plastics and are required by the EPA to carry a warning statement such as, “This product does not protect users or others against food-borne bacteria.” Sustainably harvested bamboo or FSC-certified wood cutting boards are good alternatives. Dedicate one cutting board for chopping produce and another one for cutting meat. Scrub all surfaces that contact food (such as cutting boards, utensils and countertops) with hot, soapy water. Use vinegar to disinfect.
What it is: One of the most abundant elements on earth, aluminum is found throughout the kitchen in cookware, foil, flatware, canned foods and beverages, reusable metal water bottles and antacids, as well as in salt additives present in cake and pancake mixes, self-rising flours, pickles and processed cheese.
Potential dangers: Exposure to high levels of aluminum has been linked to neurological problems and has been found to disrupt the central nervous system. During the 1960s and ’70s, aluminum emerged as a possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but study results have been inconclusive. Once ingested, excess aluminum can accumulate in various tissues in the body and may weaken bones by depleting the body of calcium.
How to avoid it: Although very little aluminum enters our bodies through everyday sources, they can have a cumulative effect. To err on the side of caution, reduce your aluminum exposure by choosing stainless steel cookware and glass baking dishes. Anodized aluminum cookware, which has a hard coating that prevents food from reacting with the metal, is safer than traditional aluminum, but make sure it is PFTE- and PFOA-free. Store leftovers in glass containers rather than foil; drink beverages packaged in glass bottles instead of cans; and make sure reusable water bottles are made of stainless steel—not aluminum. You can also help keep aluminum out of your food by making cakes and pancakes from scratch with aluminum-free baking powder and avoiding processed foods.
What it is: Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a synthetic estrogen found in thousands of products including reusable polycarbonate (#7 plastic) food and beverage containers; the lining of canned goods; PVC (#3 plastic); and on receipts and money.
Potential dangers: BPA can leach into food and beverages. Exposure to trace amounts of BPA have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and have been linked to a wide range of disorders including breast cancer, reproductive system damage, heart disease and obesity. BPA poses the highest risk to developing fetuses and babies.
How to avoid it: BPA is found in the lining of nearly all canned foods and beverages. A few companies, among them Eden Organics, offer food in BPA-free cans, and several other companies are working to eliminate BPA from linings. While it may be difficult to totally eliminate canned foods and beverages, at least try to avoid those for which you have fresh or frozen alternatives, as well those known to contain high levels of BPA. A 2009 Consumer Reports study found the highest levels in Del Monte green beans, Progresso vegetable soup and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have found that canned meats, pasta and soup also contain high levels.
Also avoid polycarbonate plastics. Polycarbonate plastics are hard and clear—the plastic most often used to make baby bottles and children’s sippy cups; look for the number 7 on the bottom of the container or the letters “PC.” They break down easily and can leach BPA, especially when they are heated, washed with strong detergent, or come in contact with fatty, salty or acidic foods. Store and heat food in glass containers instead. Stainless steel is another good storage option. Buy BPA-free stainless steel water bottles, and glass or stainless steel baby bottles and sippy cups, and wash your hands after handling receipts or money.
A Plastic Safety Primer
Take a look around your kitchen and you will easily spot dozens of items made of plastic: milk jugs, Tupperware, plastic wrap, garbage bags and cereal box liners—just to name a few. Along with being made from petroleum and hazardous chemicals that can compromise our health, plastic is energy-intensive to manufacture and consumes nonrenewable resources. While it can be difficult to eliminate plastic altogether, these simple steps can help you use less of it and use it more wisely.
• Eliminate extra food packaging. Use stainless steel travel mugs and water bottles. Bring your own grocery and produce bags to the store, and buy in bulk.
• Buy and store food in glass containers.
• If you do use plastic containers, the safest are labeled with the number 5 or the letters “PP”. Numbers 1, 2 and 4 are generally safe but have some issues with toxicity and a limited shelf life.
• Avoid plastics labeled 3, 6 and 7. For a plastic safety refresher course, check out our handy guide to plastic types and their health and environmental impacts in "De-Plasticize Your Life: 3 Harmful Plastics to Avoid."
• Forgo melamine dinnerware, which is made with formaldehyde—a known human carcinogen. Melamine is hard plastic, often decorated with bright colors, patterns and pictures that are targeted toward children.
• As a general rule, never microwave foods in or on plastic containers. A “microwavable” label only means it won’t melt or warp—not that it won’t leach chemicals into your food.
• Do not put plastic containers in the dishwasher. Handwash them gently with mild soap.
• Immediately transfer restaurant leftovers into glass or stainless steel containers when you get home. Better yet, bring your own reusable to-go container to the restaurant.