Why is Teflon So Bad and What Are the Alternatives?

Learn what the concerns are and how you can cook Teflon-free
Empty cast iron skillet with tea towel, over old wood background
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You've probably heard that Teflon is bad. Sure, it revolutionized the kitchen clean-up process. Since its inception in the 1940s, 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, we’ve learned a lot more about the down side of Teflon, why you should reconsider using it in your kitchen, and that there are healthier alternatives. 

Teflon dangers

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 (metal or polymer fume fever).

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.

Teflon 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 that's 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 without creating the risks that degraded Teflon would. Make sure the pan is oiled and heated to temperature fully before adding food to make it stick less. Using a metal spatula rather than 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. There are many myths about cooking with cast iron but these can be overcome. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I love cooking with it! As long as you keep them well-oiled and avoid using acidic foods (like tomatoes or citrus) until the pan is well-seasoned, cast iron cookware will last forever.

Things to consider if you currently use Teflon

  1. If it’s scratched, you’re increasing your risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. In a solid 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. Teflon pans cannot be recycled and must go in the trash. You could also consider taking it to a Community Environment Day or wherever household hazardous waste is collected in your community.

If you’re due for a cookware upgrade, you can slowly phase out your Teflon pans with these Teflon alternatives to help create a healthier kitchen and healthier meals. Once you get the hang of cooking with these non-stick substitutes, you won’t look back!