Q: I just got engaged and have been back and forth to Bed Bath & Beyond a hundred times tweaking my registry. One thing I can’t decide on is cookware — my sister says to get Teflon everything, because it's so easy to use, but my mother-in-law-to-be swears by stainless steel. I remember hearing somewhere that nonstick pans can be bad for your health. Is that true? 

A: Teflon, which was accidentally invented in 1938 by DuPont chemist Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, has been touted for decades as a miracle worker in the kitchen. Since they were first sold commercially in 1946, Teflon pots and pans have transformed kitchen cleanup. Suddenly, pans didn’t require extra effort and scrubbing to get clean — the residue from cooking would literally fall off.

Fast forward to the last 15 years and everything wasn’t coming off quite so smoothly for Teflon. See, perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOA), a chemical that is used in the making of nonstick pans, has been detected in almost all humans across the world. It has not been known to be harmful to people, but various animal studies have shown a correlation between the chemical and cancer, liver disease and even death.

After these reports came out, DuPont, the trademarked manufacturer of Teflon, assured the public that no PFOA remained in the nonstick cookware once it was on the market. It was “cooked off,” similar to the way that alcohol is no longer present when cooked in the oven or on the stove. Even without the PFOA, DuPont does warn consumers to use its nonstick pans only on low or medium heat, and says that possible fumes that may lead to “polymer fume fever” (which has symptoms similar to the flu) may be off-gased at temperatures above 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2003, though, the Environmental Working Group released a study that changed the debate. Sparked by what it called “Teflon Toxicosis” — a multitude of pet bird deaths caused by toxic fumes emitted by nonstick pans while cooking — the EWG tested a number of nonstick pans to see how long it would take them to reach toxic temperatures and at what particular temperatures toxic gases were released. What it found was that a nonstick pan left to preheat on high reached a temperature of more than 700 degrees within five minutes, at which point it released several toxic gases, including TFE, DFA, and PFOA (all animal carcinogens), and alarmingly, MFA, a chemical that can be lethal to humans at low doses.

In the same year, the EWG petitioned the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to put a warning label on all nonstick products, warning consumers about the potential dangers to humans (and very real danger to pet birds) of nonstick products heated to high temperatures. The CPSC denied the petition.

Three years later, in 2006, DuPont and seven other manufacturers of products containing PFOA, at the urging of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a voluntary pact that would phase out all PFOA in products by 2015. By the way, PFOA is also used in the manufacture of microwave popcorn bags, waterproof clothing and other products.

So what to do for now? You could buy nonstick pans, and use them only on medium or low heat, or you could switch to something like cast iron or stainless steel, which do not produce any harmful chemicals when heated. Seth Warshaw, owner and chef at Teaneck, N.J., steakhouse E.T.C., says cooking in stainless steel will actually make your food taste better. “For sautéing, searing and browning, stainless steel will always yield better results than nonstick,” he says. “Just make sure that you always, always heat up the pan before putting in the oil, and of course make sure that you are putting in the food pointing away from you so as not to burn yourself.”

For those of you who use nonstick pans already and can’t give them up, make sure you keep your pet birds far away from the kitchen while cooking, and throw out those nonstick pans as soon as they start to erode. And when you do? It might be time to invest in some stainless-steel cookware.

— Chanie

Also on MNN: How to keep food from sticking to stainless steel pans

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Photo: DuPont