Is Teflon Really So Bad?

Teflon has a bad rap for sure. Here's what the concerns are and how you can cook Teflon-free.

Teflon revolutionized the kitchen clean-up process. From frying pans to skillets to woks, you can cook just about anything you like and wash up in a fraction of the time. However, since its inception in the 1940s we’re learning a lot more about the downsides. Here’s why you should reconsider using Teflon in your kitchen and what the healthier alternatives are.

What is Teflon?

Up until 2015, Teflon was made using a chemical called perfluorooctonoic acid, or PFOA. It is a suspected carcinogen, hormone disruptor and reproductive toxin. It is also highly persistent, which means once it enters the environment it does not leave (think of what this means for our drinking water, seafood, and farmland soils).

While it is thought that most of the carcinogenic chemicals are eliminated during manufacture, small amounts may remain. And when Teflon is overheated, these chemicals can enter the food being cooked. It is a known toxin to birds, which is why Teflon products (including self-cleaning ovens) include a warning to remove any birds from the room when being heated. Exposure to Teflon that has been overheated can result in flu-like symptoms in humans.

Because of the concerns to human health and the environment around PFOA, many manufacturers are phasing it out, including the Teflon brand. However, there is little to no information about what the alternative process or chemicals are. The good news is, there are alternatives.

What are the alternatives?

Ceramic

Ceramic cookware is a close alternative to Teflon, and is generally considered to be safe. It is often less resistant to scratching and some brands will lose their non-stick properties at high heat, so be sure to follow user directions carefully. Ceramic coatings, especially if sold outside North America, may contain a high lead concentration, so be sure to source from a reputable brand (Lagostina and Green Pan claim to be PFOA, lead, and cadmium-free).

Stainless Steel

This is a cost effective, “low tech” option. It isn’t technically non-stick, but it can be cleaned up with some elbow grease and a good scouring pad. Make sure the pan is oiled and heated to temperature fully before adding food to make it stick less. Using a metal spatula over plastic can also help make less of a mess.

Cast Iron

I will admit that I was not in love with the idea of cast iron when we got our first frying pan. It’s heavy, bulky, and seemed like a lot of effort. But I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I love cooking with it! As long as you keep them well seasoned (oiled) and avoid using acidic foods (like tomatoes), cast iron cookware will last forever.

What to do if you currently use Teflon?

This is a personal choice, but here are some things to consider:

  1. If it’s scratched, you’re increasing your risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. Albeit small, the risk is there. In a sold state, Teflon is inert, so this is more of an issue with releasing gases from cooking than ingesting flakes of coating.
  2. Cooking at high temperatures can increase off-gassing of toxic chemicals into your food.
  3. Once you discard it, any PFOA that gets released into the environment will never leave. It should go in the trash (not recycling). You could also consider taking it to a Community Environment Day (in Toronto) or wherever household hazardous waste is collected in your community.

If you’re due for a cookware upgrade, have a look at these alternatives to help create a healthier kitchen and healthier meals. You can slowly phase out your Teflon pans if making the switch makes you nervous. It might take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of these non-stick alternatives you won’t look back!