When it comes to non stick coating in cookware, there are a myriad of choices on the market today. But how just well do each type of coating work, and more importantly, how safe are they?
In this article, I’ll show you all the major types of non stick coating on cookware out there, plus their pros and cons so you can make an informed decision based on your needs.
1. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) Coating
Potential Health Hazards: Releases toxic fumes when overheated. Can cause flu-like symptoms to humans. Fatal to birds.
Other Pitfalls: Easy to scratch. Flakes off if poorly made. Usually lasts 2 to 3 years with moderate usage.
PTFE is a synthetic fluoropolymer that is applied on a roughened surface to make it nonstick. It was accidentally discovered by Roy J. Plunkett in 1938 when he tried to create a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. What he got was a white, waxy substance that was slippery in nature. This was registered under the name Teflon, and almost 20 years later, would be used to produce the first PTFE-coated pan, Tefal.
When people talk about PTFE, they sometimes confuse it with another chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Also known as C8, PFOA is a separate synthetic compound that is often used as part of the manufacturing process of PTFE based non stick coating.
Both PFOA and PTFE have been found to be harmful to humans and the environment under certain circumstances.
PTFE itself starts to release different types of highly toxic PFIB fumes once it reaches 464°F (264°C). If inhaled, these fumes can cause polymer fume fever to humans and death to birds. This is why you should never preheat empty PTFE-coated pans or use them for high-heat cooking techniques.
To reduce the use of PFOA in accordance with the PFOA Stewardship Program, Teflon is now using per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in place of PFOA to manufacture their non-stick coating. Unfortunately, studies have found that the new substitutes called GenX and PFBS are also dangerous to our health.
Based on animal experiments, it was found that GenX can cause:
- Reproductive problems
- Cancerous tumors in the liver, pancreas, and testicles
- Kidney disease
- Changes in immune responses and cholesterol levels
- Weight gain
- Liver degeneration
- Uterine polyps
Meanwhile, exposure to PFBS can lead to:
- Immune system changes
- Hormone disruption
- Harm to fetal growth and child development
- Liver disease
If you have PTFE-coated cookware, you can follow these tips to minimize your health risks:
- Never heat your Teflon pan to temperatures more than 500°F (260°C). Low and medium heat is recommended for cooking.
- Do not heat up an empty PTFE-coated pan, as it can quickly overheat with the absence of food.
- Ventilate your kitchen by opening the window or turning on your exhaust fan to clear any fumes.
- Replace old Teflon cookware that have a considerable amount of scratches to avoid ingesting the coating.
PTFE non stick coasting typically lasts 2 to 3 years with proper care. Always use wooden or silicone utensils to prevent scratching the nonstick surface. Also, it’s best to gently hand-wash with a soft sponge, avoiding steel wools and scouring pads.
2. Ceramic Coating
Potential Health Hazards: If poorly made, might leach cadmium and lead.
Other Pitfalls: Breaks easily. Wears off after a few months to a year. Not suitable for high-heat cooking. Not compatible with metal utensils.
It was in the 1960s, when people were looking for a safer alternative to Teflon-coated pans, that ceramic-coated cookware started to become popular. It uses a mineral-based coating that is made from a mixture of silica (a component of sand), oxygen, binders, color pigments, and reinforcing agents.
Older ceramic cookware used either lead or cadmium to give the surface a glossy appearance. Since these chemicals are hazardous to health, reputable manufacturers have since switched to non-toxic glazes, following the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines to ensure safe cooking.
To make the cookware, the inorganic solution is first turned into gel form using the Sol-Gel process, so that it can be applied to the anodized aluminum base by spraying or dipping. Next, it is cured using a high-heat firing process. Depending on the manufacturer, the coating application and curing process can be repeated several times for a more durable coating.
Ceramic-coated cookware is loved for its excellent nonstick capabilities that do not use toxic chemicals like PTFE and PFOA. For the same reason, this coating is also very eco-friendly.
The main disadvantage of ceramic based non stick coating is that it is not as durable as Teflon. Aside from being prone to chipping, the non-reactive coating typically only lasts one year with moderate use. To extend its lifespan, gentle manual washing and silicone and wooden utensils are recommended. Also, although it does not release toxic fumes, it should not be exposed to temperatures of more than 842°F (450°C) to prevent the ceramic coating from deteriorating.
3. Silicone Coating
Potential Health Hazards: Low-quality silicone might contain toxic fillers.
Other Pitfalls: Only available for bakeware and utensils. Hard to clean. Poor heat conductor.
Silicone is a flexible nonstick material that is often used for bakeware and kitchen utensils. It is extracted from silica, a mineral quartz that can be found in sand, using a 1800˚C heating process. Then, the silicone is ground, mixed with methyl chloride, and distilled. Water is then added to turn it into polydimethylsiloxane which will then be used to make polysiloxane, or what is commonly known as rubber silicone, to manufacture silicone bakeware and kitchen utensils.
Because it looks like plastic, a lot of concern about silicone’s safety have come up. The good news is that the FDA considers silicone as “Generally Regarded as Safe.” Plus, the FDA is constantly checking the quality of silicone products to ensure that they are suitable for “producing, manufacturing, packing, processing, preparing, treating, packaging, transporting, and holding food.”
Be careful though of low-quality silicone kitchenware and bakeware that contain plastic fillers, since they can leach toxic chemicals into your food. Pure silicone is non-toxic and nonreactive to acidic food. To check if the product is pure silicone, do the twist test. Simply stretch the silicone with your fingers. If it changes color, it has plastic fillers. To see how this is done, check out this video:
Here are some more things that you need to know about silicone:
- Silicone isn’t completely nonstick, so you’ll still have to grease or dust it with some flour or cocoa powder before you pour the batter.
- Since silicone is wobbly, they aren’t suitable for cake pans. Even silicone muffin molds need to be placed in holders for stability.
- Always use mitts when taking them out of the oven since they can still get hot.
- Scratched silicone can harbor bacteria, so pointed and sharp objects shouldn’t be used.
- Over time, a stubborn white residue called calcium sulfate can form on silicone products. This is relatively non-hazardous. But, if you want to remove it, just soak it in a water and vinegar solution for 30 minutes.
4. Porcelain Enamel Coating
Potential Health Hazards: Low-quality ones might contain lead or cadmium.
Other Pitfalls: Expensive. Heavy. Prone to chipping.
Typically used in enameled cast iron cookware, porcelain enamel, or vitreous enamel, is made by fusing powdered glass to the base (cast iron) using temperatures between 750 and 850 °C (1,380 and 1,560 °F). The powdered glass melts, coats the base, and hardens to become a smooth coating.
Just like ceramic coating, porcelain enamel is safe, inert, eco-friendly, and free from PFOA and PTFE. The safety issues surrounding porcelain enamel is due to the cadmium and lead-based glaze that were used in older porcelain cookware to give it a shiny look. Fortunately, most enameled cast iron cookware nowadays from reputable companies follow the California Proposition 65 standards for lead and cadmium content.
Thanks to this coating, enameled cast iron cookware are nonstick, allowing you to cook with less oil. It’s also an excellent alternative for iron-sensitive people who can’t use non coated cast iron cookware because of iron overload disease. Even better, enameled cast iron cookware can last for years with proper care. It’s also popular because it can be found in many colors.
Of course, there are some drawbacks as well. Enameled cast iron cookware is expensive, heavy, prone to chipping, and has poorer thermal conductivity than bare cast iron. Plus, silicone and wooden utensils are recommended, and sudden temperature changes should be prevented. Since the porcelain enamel coating is fragile, it’s best to hand wash such cookware, avoiding steel wools that can damage the coating.
For stubborn food residues on porcelain enamel, follow the tips in this video:
5. Seasoned Cast Iron Coating
Potential Health Hazards: Might leach iron. Can be dangerous for people with iron sensitivity.
Other Pitfalls: Requires regular seasoning, Doesn’t heat evenly. Might rust if not seasoned well. Heavy.
Seasoned cast iron cookware is an old favorite when it comes to nonstick cooking. Bare cast iron, when regularly seasoned, becomes wonderfully nonstick and resistant to rust. Using high heat, the oil is polymerized onto the pan, changing the color of its surface into a patina.
In terms of safety, seasoned cast iron cookware is one of the best since it doesn’t use toxic chemicals like PTFE, PFOA, cadmium, and lead. Still, there are some people concerned about iron leaching. Cast iron cookware, especially when used to cook acidic foods like tomato sauce, can leach iron into the food. This is why some doctors recommend using cast iron for people with anemia while people with sensitivity to iron are advised to use another type of cookware. Fortunately, the seasoning acts as a barrier that minimizes the iron leaching. Of course, despite the seasoning, the longer you cook, and the more acidic the food, the higher the chance of iron leaching.
Another concern that people have is the ingestion of the seasoning if it chips off. But, since it is just small amounts of unsaturated fat, it is quite safe to eat.
Seasoned cast iron can be hard to maintain as it requires regular seasoning. It is also very heavy, making it unsuitable for cooks with weak wrists. But, cleaning this extremely durable cookware is easy, requiring only some water and a bit of scrubbing.
To season cast iron cookware:
- Clean the cast iron until all the manufacturer-applied coating has been removed.
- Apply a thin layer of cooking oil, wiping off any excess.
- Heat the cookware in the oven at 260 °C (500 °F) for 30 minutes.
If you prefer using your stovetop to season your cast iron, just follow this video:
6. Anodized Aluminum Coating
Potential Health Hazards: Poorly made anodized aluminum cookware might leach aluminum.
Other Pitfalls: Not as non-stick as the other types of coating. Heavy. Requires gentle cleaning.
Raw aluminum is a reactive metal that must be processed first before it can be used as a cookware. In this electrochemical process, the aluminum is dipped in acid and electrically charged to transform the surface into aluminum oxide. The process smoothens the surface of the aluminum so that there are no pores that will make the food stick. Also, once properly anodized, aluminum becomes nontoxic, non-reactive, and heat resistant.
Since aluminum cookware is easily available, it is one of the most common types of cookware. But, after the various studies that link aluminum to Alzheimer’s disease, people became concerned about how much aluminum is actually leaching to their food. The good news is that properly anodized aluminum is inert, so it won’t leach significant amounts of aluminum.
The one thing you need to remember is that it is only the surface of the anodized aluminum cookware that is non-reactive. This means that if the surface is scratched, your food might come into contact with the raw aluminum inside. To prevent this from happening, only use wooden or silicone kitchen utensils with your anodized aluminum cookware. Also, never use abrasive cleaners like steel wool.
7. Superhydrophobic Coating
Potential Health Hazards: No known health and environment hazards yet.
Other Pitfalls: Not available for cookware yet.
The superhydrophobic coating may very well represent the future of non-stick cookware. By using lasers to etch “smart” microscopic patterns onto a surface, a superhydrophobic surface becomes so water repellent that water just bounces off it.
To give you an idea of just how slippery a superhydrophobic surface is. water droplets slide off its surface at just a 5 degree tilt. Compare that to teflon, where 70 degrees is required for water to roll off, says Professor Guo.
There are two ways that a material can be made superhydrophobic:
- Coating: Usually derived from silica, this superhydrophobic coating is applied to glass and plastic materials by spraying or dipping. It is completely safe for food contact and environmentally-friendly as well.
- Engineered Surface: A microscale pattern can be made on the surface of materials like glass, metal, and polymer to make it superhydrophobic and even omniphobic, meaning that it resists all types of liquid.
Currently, this technology isn’t available for cookware yet. The coating is already used in food packaging, but scientists still haven’t been able to find a way to quickly apply the microscale pattern on metal, so applications are still limited.
Which Non Stick Coating to Choose
As you can see, there are a lot of non-stick coating and cookware currently on the market. While everybody loves to harp on Teflon, when used only for medium to low heat cooking and with careful maintenance, it can still be a viable choice. Still, at the end of the day, other non stick options such as ceramic, enamel covered cast iron or even pure cast iron cookware are generally smarter options, even though from a non stick standpoint, they may not quite match up. That is until superhydrophobic coating makes its way into cookware that is.