It's often not just the food you eat that might have an effect on your health but also the containers you cook your food in. Cooking with copper pans can be great when you need to be precise with heating and temperature, but there are some safety precautions you should take into consideration.
Copper pans are a great heat conductor and allow you to adjust temperatures precisely, making them nice cookware for sauces and other foods. While cooking with most copper pans is safe, unlined copper cookware can potentially leak copper into food, causing nausea and health issues.
Effect of Cookware on Health
How your cookware affects your food may not be at the front of your mind when you're whipping up a quick dinner after a long day at work or when you're trying to save money. But it turns out that the types of pans you use — whether they're made of aluminum, iron, lead or copper — can affect your food and your health.
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The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that some common materials used in cookware like pots and pans, as well as eating utensils like forks, include aluminum, iron, lead, stainless steel and Teflon. Sometimes, it's possible for these materials to leak into the food you're making.
Though most materials used in cookware are considered safe, lead and copper stand out as elements that have been linked to health problems and illness. Lead is particularly problematic, as exposure to lead has been linked to serious health problems, especially among children.
This is why it's important to identify the types of pots you're using to cook. Check how old they are and what materials they're made of to ensure nothing dangerous is being leaked into your food.
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The Deal With Copper
Copper is an excellent conductor of heat. It tends to heat evenly across the pot or pan, allowing you to control the temperature precisely. This is particularly useful for delicate dishes that require temperature fine-tuning.
Copper is a chemical element and a metal that can be found in nature. It has a high level of electrical conductivity, making it good for heating things up. It also happens to be an essential mineral for the human body, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
It's mostly found naturally in certain foods like shellfish, organ meats and whole grains, but can also be available as a dietary supplement. In the body, copper is used in producing energy, metabolizing iron and synthesizing connective tissue, among other functions. It's also important for brain health and for the brain at rest, according to a November 2014 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A basic, varied diet would provide about 1,400 micrograms of copper a day for men, and 1,100 micrograms a day for women, the NIH states. The copper most often ends up in a person's skeleton and muscle, though the rest of it is released through bile and urine.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for copper for the average adult is about 900 micrograms a day. Not getting enough copper in your diet could potentially be a risk factor for certain diseases, like cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's.
While your body doesn't want to go through copper deficiency, it also wants to avoid copper toxicity, or an overload of the metal. It's the chronic exposure to copper at high levels that can leave someone impaired with liver damage or stomach problems, including pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
However, a May 2016 study published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology that analyzed observation and intervention studies found that an intake below or exceeding the recommended amount (anything from 600 to 3,000 micrograms) may not necessarily have an adverse effect on the risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, cancer or arthritis.
The NIH points out that it's rare to see cases of copper overload, but the ones that do occur are typically caused by people being exposed to or drinking water that's been sitting in copper pipes. This is why the Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting copper (along with lead) in public water.
Safe Cooking With Copper Pans
With the knowledge that copper is naturally occurring in many healthy foods and is required for our body, we may not see copper vessels for cooking as any risk. It turns out, however, that if not stored or used properly, copper cookware might leak too much of this metal into our food and lean us more toward copper toxicity.
Copper vessels for cooking are typically lined or coated with other metals to prevent the copper from leaking into the food. However, over time this lining can often be dissolved, whether through scouring, acidic foods or simply old age. Particularly old copper pots for cooking may have tin or nickel coatings, the U.S. National Library of Medicine writes, and these shouldn't be used for cooking at all.
According to the Ackerman Cancer Center, trace amounts of copper getting into your body is usually harmless. It's the larger amounts — particularly those in a single dose — that can be dangerous.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that copper in high doses, or exposure to it long-term, can cause irritation in your nose, mouth and eyes. It can also cause liver and kidney damage, and ultimately death, in high amounts. However, evidence on whether high doses of copper can be linked to cancer is still unclear, so it's not listed as a carcinogen.
While copper poisoning is rare, it's still best to take the safest precautions when cooking with copper pans. Here are some tips to ensure your food is metal-free:
- Choose lined copper cookware: Unlined copper vessels for cooking have a higher risk of leaking copper into your food. Avoid unlined copper cookware and find copper pots that are lined with another metal. If you've been using old copper cookware from your grandmother, you may want to throw them out to be safe and replace them with new, lined versions.
- Wash, dry and polish by hand: Second, avoid scrubbing your copper pans with such force that you slough off the lining. You don't want to scour your copper pots for cooking with one of those stainless steel scouring pads, as this might scratch off that metal layer coating the copper. You'll need to gently and thoroughly wash and dry your copper cookware by hand. To keep it looking shiny and new, polish it by hand as well.
- Don't store food in copper: The problems with copper tend to arise when your pots are unlined and you leave food (especially corrosive, acidic food) in there for a long time. This is a recipe for disaster, as acidic food can dissolve the metal into your food. To be safe, you may want to avoid storing your food in copper cookware at all, even if it's lined. Choose glass containers instead.
- Check on the cookware's state: Finally, you'll want to keep tabs on your copper cookware over time. Check for any spots that may show the lining wearing thin, cracks or simply old age. If your pots are breaking down, you may be able to taste the metallic taste in your food. To be safe, be sure to choose, clean, restore and store your copper pots properly — and always aim to replace them if they need it. This way, you'll be able to enjoy your classic copper pots and pans without being worried about the health effects.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Cooking Utensils and Nutrition"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Health Problems Caused by Lead"
- National Institutes of Health: "Copper"
- Environmental Protection Agency: "Drinking Water Requirements for States and Public Water Systems: Lead and Water Rule"
- Ackerman Cancer Center: "Cookware and Health Concerns"
- Clemson University: "Cookware Safety"
- State of Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division: "Use of Copper Mugs in the Serving of Alcoholic Beverages"
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Copper Is an Endogenous Modulator of Neural Circuit Spontaneous Activity"
- Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology: "Dietary Copper and Human Health: Current Evidence and Unresolved Issues"