5 Hazardous Chemicals to Ban for a Healthy Kitchen

Keep hazardous chemicals out of your family’s food by learning about the health impacts of common cooking and food storage items—and how to choose safer alternatives for a healthy kitchen.

| September/October 2012

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.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)

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. 

8/27/2013 6:54:53 PM

A correction to my Triclosan comment below...It is found in Colgate anti gingivitis toothpaste, not Crest.

8/27/2013 8:57:41 AM

Triclosan is also found in Crest anti gingivitis toothpaste and was recommended by my dentist. I have since stopped using it. Doctors are not always aware of these things so check advice out for yourself. Thanks MEL for making me aware on this.

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