- Teflon pans are safe only if you are very careful while using it. You have to make sure it is not heated beyond 460°F and also prevent scratches in the teflon coating.
- Don’t buy teflon pans if you have pet birds. The toxic fumes can kill them!
- Don’t put teflon pans in the oven as the temperature in ovens may exceed the recommended temperature levels suitable for teflon utensils.
- Ventilate the kitchen and avoid inhaling the fumes if a teflon pan overheats.
- Choose healthy cast iron pans instead of teflon pans.
Teflon is one of the most stable and inert substances known to science. Teflon (PolyTetraFluoroEthylene) coated cookwares are considered as a blessing by millions of people around the world as it makes cleanup easy and also uses less oil. But, do the risks outweigh the advantages? We will look in depth into teflon safety and how we can safely (relatively) use teflon pans for cooking.
Are teflon pan’s safe for cooking?
Teflon utensils are safe as long as…
- They are not overheated.
- The structural integrity of Teflon is maintained. (No flaking, chipping or scratching)
The PFOA risk
It was initially thought that families using Teflon coated pans are exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is used to manufacture fluoropolymers – the main constituent in Teflon coating. PFOA is associated with tumors and developmental problems in animals. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found a correlation between PFOA exposure and small decrease in head circumference and body weight in infants. IARC has classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B). However, it is seen that PFOA’s actually gets evaporated during the manufacturing process of Teflon and the Teflon pan itself will not expose the consumer to worrying amounts of PFOA. (There can be traces though!)
In 2013, DuPont removed PFOA from the Teflon manufacturing process as part of the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship program. So PFOA is no longer a major risk factor in Teflon coated utensils in the USA. Note that PFOA is still used in many countries and you may come across pans using PFOA in their manufacturing processes.
The ‘shady’ replacement of PFOA
DuPont came up with a replacement chemical for PFOA in 2012 known as GenX. Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment did a comprehensive study on GenX and concluded that “Based on the limited information available,” at least one of the ingredients is “probably less harmful than PFOA.” This is not a reassuring statement given the fact that DuPont has been too conservative on the specifics of GenX. The only improvement in GenX compared to PFOA is that it stays for a lesser duration in the human body (better bio-elimination) compared to PFOA. But this does not shield consumers against the ill effects.
Many experts believe that GenX may cause the very same problems as PFOA. In fact, studies have already shown that GenX causes cancer in lab rats. In January 2013, a DuPont report stated that rats exposed to GenX over a period of 2 years formed cancerous tumors in the liver, testicles and pancreas. However, the DuPont scientists downplayed the findings stating “these tumor findings are not considered relevant for human risk assessment.”
The mode of exposure to GenX/PFOA
Exposure to GenX and PFOA will be minimal through the actual use of the pans as these are not usually found in alarming amounts in the finished products. However, it is seen that majority of the US population has traces of this compound in their body due to the improper disposal of waste products from the DuPont factories into the water systems. i.e. You run more risk of exposure to PFOA/GenX through your drinking water than the teflon pan itself.
Hmm… so why do people say its bad to cook food in teflon pans? Issues arise depending on how you use it. Do you often cook in high flame when using teflon pans? Does your pan have scratches due to improper handling? Lets see what happens in these two situations.
It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.
– Mahatma Gandhi
What happens when Teflon is overheated?
When Teflon coated pans are overheated, the Teflon coating begins to break down at the molecular level (may not be seen with the naked eye) and when this happens, a wide gamut of toxic particles and gases (including carcinogens) are released.
The Non-Stick property of Teflon material is due to compounds classified as FluoroPolymers and is one of the major components of Teflon. Once overheated, these fluoropolymers break down at the molecular level (may not be seen with the naked eye) and releases Fluorine containing compounds that are generally considered toxic (including carcinogens).
So, what is the optimum temperature for Teflon pans?
DuPont, who is the inventor of Teflon suggests to keep temperatures below 500°F when using Teflon utensils to prevent the breakdown of Teflon. However, touching this temperature level is very common when you cook at high flames. (An empty pan can reach these temperature levels if its heated on HIGH for 1 and 3/4 minutes in a lightweight pan). In fact, many of us even touch mid 600 levels and above during our daily cooking activities.
Although DuPont suggests a safe limit (to maintain the integrity of the teflon coating) of 500°F, there are various reports of pet birds dying due to fume emissions by heating teflon coated pans at mere 325°F.
Inhalation of toxic fumes while cooking
It is seen that at 660°F, the fumes released by a Teflon pan is strong enough to cause “polymer-fume fever” or “Teflon flu”, a temporary flu like condition (these fumes are fatal for birds). Some of the components in the fumes released during the breakdown of Teflon are HFP (hexafluoropropene), TFA (trifluoroacetic acid), TFE (tetrafluoroethylene), SiF4 (silicon tetrafluoride), trifluoroacetic acid fluoride, OFCB (octafluorocyclobutane), carbonyl fluoride, CF4 (carbon tetrafluoride), PFIB (perfluoroisobutane), perfluorobutane, HF (hydrofluoric acid), MFA (monofluoroacetic acid) and other particulate matter.
Are these bad?
Hmm, lets see… PFIB is used as a chemical warfare agent! Carbonyl fluoride is a potential chemical warfare agent as it is more dangerous than phosgene which was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I and II. MFA (monofluoroacetic acid) can kill in low doses, HF (hydrofluoric acid) is a highly corrosive agent.
There have been cases of serious illnesses in humans due to teflon toxicity. Issue is that it is hard to diagnose as doctors usually don’t suspect teflon to cause the portrayed symptoms.
Ingestion of teflon flakes
The use of Flaked/Scratched/Chipped pans runs the risk of small Teflon particles dislodging from the utensils and mixing with your food. Paul Honigfort, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer with the Food and Drug Administration says that you need not be particularly worried of swallowing tiny flakes of Teflon as it would just pass through the body without getting absorbed thanks to the inert nature of Teflon.
However, any residual PFOA/GenX, will also get ingested along with these tiny teflon flakes. This will pose risks to consumers as PFOA is classified as a “likely carcinogen” and GenX is known to cause cancer in animals.
How to safely use a non stick Teflon pan?
Is non stick right for you? – For people who prefer high heat cooking or people who frequently walk out of the kitchen for other chores, non-stick/teflon is not the right option for you unless you change your cooking style.
Use teflon pans for the right purpose – Avoid using teflon pans for cooking techniques that require high heat. E.g. Broiling/Searing meat.
Use heavier Teflon pans – As the thickness/weight increases, the pan heats up slower. So if you are planning to purchase one, go for heavier ones. These are more costly, but it is definitely worth the investment as it will last longer, cooks evenly and is more safer.
Never heat an empty pan – An empty light weight pan can reach the 500°F threshold in less than 2 min. Even heating pans with oil can reach the threshold temperatures in 2.5 minutes.
Preheat the pan for the right amount of time – Temperature of the pan usually shoots up when there is no food in the pan. So it is critical that the right attention is given during this time. Best option is to pour 1 tbsp of water to the pan before preheating. As soon as the water evaporates, you know that the pan is ready for cooking.
Never cook on high heat – Don’t go above medium as most of us usually get distracted while we are cooking or we are multitasking and within minutes, a pan in high flame can exceed temperatures of 500°F.
Never use “power burners” – Modern day cooking ranges have “power burners” that is provided for quick heating (boiling water etc.). These burners are not good for your teflon coated pans as it will overheat you pans very quickly.
Avoid chipping/damaging the pan – If pans chip/flake, its more likely to release toxic compounds and its is more likely that PFOA/GenX can enter your bloodstream. So, always use wooden spoons/spatula.
Use the right size pans – Leaving a good portion of the cooking surface empty will cause those area to heat up quickly and may cause the teflon to deteriorate in those portions. So it is suggested to cover majority of the cooking area with food. If you have only little items to cook, use a smaller pan.
Allow pans to cool before cleaning – Non-Stick pans need gentle maintenance and pouring water on a hot pan can damage it. Let the pan cool to room temperature before cleaning it.
Avoid dishwasher – You can prolong the life of the non-stick pans by avoiding the dishwasher. Non-Stick pans are known for easy cleaning, so it should not be a great deal to clean it by hand.
Seasoning the pan – Although it is not mandatory, it is good to season non stick pans with oil after cleaning. You can pour 1 tsp of oil in the pan and use a paper tissue to rub it around the insides of the pan.
Storing them properly – A good way to store the non-stick pans are to hang them to your walls or use an appropriate hanger accessory. The objective is to prevent any thing from scraping/scratching the teflon surface.
Timely replacement – If you have been using a Teflon pan the right way (never overheating, no scratch marks/flaking/chipping of pans), it is advised to replace teflon pans every 2 years. However, if you see the smallest of scratches or chipping, replace it immediately.
We personally feel that the usage of non stick pans are not worth the risk as it is almost impossible to prevent overheating (>460°F) and maintain it without any scratches. You can opt for Cast iron pans which are one of the healthiest options available when it comes to cooking.
However, if you are a die-hard fan of non-stick cookware and cannot even think of moving away from them, use our safety tips to minimize the risks!