Surprisingly, the type of metal you use to cook your food may influence more than just the way your meat or vegetables are seared. While most metal pots and pans on the market are considered usable, there are some — like titanium cookware — that may be safer for your health than others.
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Cookware Metals and Health
It turns out that the types of pans you use — whether they're made of aluminum, iron, lead or copper — can affect both the taste of your food and your health. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, cooking pots and utensils are often made with different types of metals or materials that may leak into your food. Some of these common materials used in cookware include aluminum, iron, lead, stainless steel and Teflon.
Most materials on the market used in cookware are considered safe by the Food & Drug Administration. However, lead and copper stand out as elements that have been associated with health problems and illness in the past. Lead has been linked to serious health problems like organ damage and cognitive impairment, particularly among young children.
It's important to identify the types of pots you're using to cook and choose the healthiest ones for your safety — as well as the quality and taste of your food. Some of the safest metals for cookware include stainless steel, cast iron and titanium. Copper, aluminum and ceramic cookware can also be effective, though they're best used with safety precautions.
Stainless Steel Pots
Stainless steel may sound like a clean, pure version of steel, but it's actually composed of a variety of metals. Some of those may include iron and chromium, in addition to nickel, molybdenum or titanium, according to Clemson University. As its name suggests, stainless steel is considered tough and resistant, especially since the titanium protects it from scratches, corrosion or heat damage.
One of its drawbacks is that it doesn't conduct heat as evenly as other metals like copper. As a result, some stainless steel cookware is lined with copper or aluminum on the bottom to help improve its heat evenness.
However, stainless steel remains one of the safest metals you can cook with, the U.S. National Library of Medicine notes. It's sturdy and relatively inexpensive, doesn't get damaged by high levels of heat and retains durability against wear and tear. You likely won't have to worry about any of these metals leaking into your food; if they do, health issues from them would likely be rare.
Cast Iron Durability
Cast iron skillets are another popular kitchen item that you have likely used or owned in the past. These pans are another great durable, cost-effective option next to stainless steel. They also have low health risks.
Iron is the only metal involved in cast iron pans, and because humans need iron in their diets, the small amounts leaking from cookware would likely not be harmful. Iron is a mineral that's found naturally in your body and in a variety of healthy foods, like beans, eggs, liver, red meats and seafood. Your body requires iron to produce hemoglobin and keep red blood cells functioning properly.
Some people may even suffer from iron deficiency, or anemia, which can lead to fatigue, weakness or dizziness. In these cases, cooking with cast iron may actually be helpful, as a bit more iron may enter your food. A September 2019 review published in PLOS One found that iron cookware could help reduce iron deficiency anemia, particularly among children.
However, you'll need to clean and care for your cast iron cookware to preserve it. Avoid scouring the cast iron; instead, rinse and dry it. In addition, coating the inside of your cast iron skillet with oil can prevent rusting.
Titanium Cookware Safety
One of the safest and healthiest metals for cooking is titanium, a chemical element and metal that's found in the Earth's crust. Titanium cookware safety relies mostly on the fact that this metal is incredibly durable and resistant to corrosion. It maintains its strength in heat, sea water and chlorine.
While titanium cookware safety makes it a popular choice for kitchenware, it's also used for industrial surfaces and even for medical and dental purposes.
You can rely on the history of titanium being safe and successful in most situations in which it's used, according to a review published in December 2019 in the International Journal of Implant Dentistry. While the study noted some minor cases of titanium toxicity in oral care, this metal is generally considered very safe for cooking.
The only thing you may want to check on for titanium cookware safety is what other metals, if any, have been added to the pot or pan. Since titanium isn't the best conductor of heat, it's sometimes coated with copper or aluminum, both of which can potentially leak into food and cause health problems.
Copper's Pros and Cons
Copper is a chemical element and a metal that can be found in nature that's often used in cookware because it has a high level of electrical conductivity. It also happens to be an essential mineral for the human body that we get from food, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The recommended dietary allowance for copper for an adult is about 900 micrograms a day, which is easily reached through diet. Not reaching the recommended amount of copper could be harmful and a risk factor for certain diseases.
But it's also possible to experience copper toxicity. Exposure to copper at high levels over a long period of time can cause liver damage or stomach problems, including nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
Though copper cookware is often coated with other metals to stop the copper from leaking into the food, this lining runs the risk of dissolving over time. That can occur from exposure to acidic foods, from scouring or washing it with an abrasive or simply due to the wear and tear of time.
Small amounts of copper getting into your body is usually harmless. But larger amounts, especially over the long-term, can be harmful to your health and may cause irritation in your nose, mouth and eyes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In severe cases, copper toxicity may also cause liver and kidney damage.
To avoid exposure to high amounts of copper, be sure to purchase lined copper cookware rather than unlined. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends staying away from unlined copper, as this may cause the metal to easily leak into food.
According to the Government of Canada, you can lower your risk of health hazards from metal cookware by not storing food in copper or aluminum pots. You can also choose to remove any scratched or unlined copper cookware from your kitchen.
Next, avoid cooking or storing highly acidic foods like vinegar or fruit juices in copper. Acidic food can dissolve the metal lining and cause copper to enter your food. Finally, take care of your copper pans by gently and thoroughly washing and drying them by hand, avoiding scouring them and checking on them over time to make sure the lining hasn't thinned.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Cooking Utensils and Nutrition"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Health Problems Caused by Lead"
- Clemson University: "Cookware Safety"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Iron in Diet"
- International Journal of Implant Dentistry: "General Review of Titanium Toxicity"
- National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Copper"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Public Health Statement for Copper"
- Government of Canada: "The Safe Use of Cookware"
- PLOS One: "Iron-Containing Cookware for the Reduction of IRON Deficiency Anemia Among Children and Females of Reproductive Age in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review"