Last updated January 2021
If you're confused about nonstick cookware, well, welcome to the club. There are half-truths, blatant obfuscations, and outright lies all over the nonstick cookware market.
Some review sites aren't giving honest information about the nonstick cookware they're promoting. Whether out of a desire to sell cookware or just plain ignorance, a lot of sites are making claims about "healthy" and "safe" nonstick cookware that are just plain misleading.
Manufacturers make claims that muddy the waters and obfuscate facts. Why? Largely because Teflon™, a brand name of PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), got a bad rap awhile back so nobody wants to admit to having it in their cookware.
We're going to set you straight about nonstick cookware so you can make rational, informed purchasing decisions.
Is PTFE really unhealthy for humans? Is there such a thing as nonstick cookware without PTFE? And what else is there to know about being misled and about buying safe, healthy cookware?
Find out all this and more here--and please, we encourage you to check all of our facts on impartial sites like Wikipedia. After all, research is the only way you're going to ever really know the truth!
What Is "Safe" and "Healthy" Nonstick Cookware, Anyway?
First of all, let's define terms. Here at Rational Kitchen, we think all nonstick cookware is healthy when used and cared for within proper guidelines. This includes ceramic nonstick and, yes, Teflon™, as well as its generic counterpart PTFE (defined more fully below).
However, we understand that PTFE/Teflon™ has gotten a bad rap, and some people are looking for alternatives. Which brings us to why we wrote this article. When people search for "safe" nonstick cookware or "healthy" nonstick cookware, that usually means non-PTFE cookware. (Not 100% of the time, maybe, but often.)
Well, because of the bad rap that PTFE/Teflon™ has gotten lately--for a number of reasons, but people worry primarily about it being a plastic, hydrocarbon-based chemical that could be unsafe for human consumption, especially when heated--manufacturers have changed the wording in their ads and articles to give the impression that their products aren't PTFE-based.
Before we go any further, take this fact to the bank: nearly all popular brands of nonstick cookware contain PTFE. This includes T-fal, Calphalon, Rachel Ray, Paula Deen, Emeril, All-Clad nonstick, Anolon, Farberware, Tramontina, ScanPan, and on and on. Also, anything with the words "diamond," "sapphire," "titanium," and "stone" in the name usually contain PTFE.
If you want to buy non-PTFE nonstick cookware, read on to learn how to tell if the cookware you're looking at is as "safe" and "healthy" as you want it to be. Debunking the following myths about nonstick cookware should help you make choices right for you and your family.
Myth #1: There Are Several Kinds of Nonstick Cookware
This is probably that biggest mistruth told in the nonstick cookware industry. Product names with terms like "titanium," "diamond," and "stone" imply that the nonstick coating on a pan is not PTFE or ceramic.
However, these are primarily marketing terms that obfuscate this truth: nonstick coating can be only one of 2 things: PTFE or ceramic. It drives us crazy to see sites list off several "healthy" nonstick cookware brands without once stating that these brands contain PTFE! In fact, they go out of their way to avoid saying that the cookware is actually PTFE. They use all kinds of euphemisms, such as "nonstick material" and "nonstick element" without naming that element to be what it is: PTFE.
This is misleading!
Why is it misleading? Because people interested in "healthy" nonstick cookware are generally trying to avoid PTFE. So not stating that a nonstick coating is actually PTFE seems dishonest. (Whether we agree with the dangers of PTFE or not is discussed below in Myth #4. We're just saying that that's usually what people who want "healthy" nonstick cookware are looking for.)
Again: there are only 2 types of nonstick cookware: 1) PTFE/Teflon™, and 2) ceramic.
PTFE (the molecule polytetrafluoroethylene) is the generic name for Teflon™, discovered accidentally in 1938 by a Dupont scientist. (The Teflon™ brand is now owned by Chemours, a division of Dupont). Up until 2007, when ceramic cookware was invented, it was the only kind of nonstick cookware on the market. Now we have both.
Nonstick coatings can be reinforced with titanium particles, diamond dust, and other substances to make them tougher and longer-lived. But these reinforcements can be added to only two nonstick options: PTFE or ceramic.
Because Teflon™ got a bad rap for being unsafe (carcinogenic, bad for the environment, lethal to birds, etc.), manufacturers changed how they marketed their nonstick cookware. Adding titanium or diamond dust to their PTFE allows them to call it something other than PTFE. But if you read the fine print, you will inevitably find that the base of the "titanium" cookware is PTFE.
Also: There are other types of cookware that are sort of nonstick: a well seasoned cast iron or carbon steel pan is "almost" nonstick. And some cookware has a waffled cooking surface that's supposed to aid in food release. But neither of these are technically nonstick because they don't have a PTFE or ceramic coating.
Here's a 4 minute video on the accidental discovery of Teflon™:
If cookware is marketed as nonstick, it's either PTFE (Teflon™) or ceramic. If it doesn't explicitly state that it's ceramic, then it's probably PTFE.
Myth #2: PTFE and Teflon™ Are Different Substances
As we already stated, Teflon™ and PTFE are basically the same chemical. Teflon™ is the brand name of the PTFE product owned by Dupont.
Today there are many different brands of PTFE available on the market. When Dupont's Teflon™ patent expired, several chemical manufacturers got in on the lucrative nonstick cookware market. Dupont has developed new versions of PTFE, as well.
All of these products are made from the same basic PTFE molecule. It begs the question of whether or not some PTFE products are more durable and longer lasting than others. While we're not privy to secret company information, we suspect that all food-grade PTFE is pretty much the same, or at least fits into a very narrow window of definition.
What differs from brand to brand is the number of layers of PTFE. More expensive and more durable brands tend to have more layers of PTFE. Also, some additions like titanium and diamond dust might help to make the PTFE more durable--but we're not entirely sold on that concept.
If you're curious, you can read more about titanium nonstick cookware here.
Teflon and PTFE are the same chemical, as are all types of nonstick coatings that aren't ceramic-based.
Myth #3: Expensive PTFE Cookware Lasts Longer than Cheap PTFE Cookware
If all PTFE is the same, then it follows that expensive PTFE cookware probably isn't going to last any longer than inexpensive PTFE cookware.
This is mostly, but perhaps not entirely, true. Here's why. An expensive nonstick skillet may have a thicker layer of nonstick coating, or it may have multiple layers of nonstick coating, either of which could possibly increase a pan's durability and longevity.
But the real story is told in the user reviews, which is that these more expensive pans seem to last about as long as less expensive nonstick pans. (A great disappointment to buyers of these high-end pans.)
It's not a total waste of money to buy a high-end nonstick pan: what you're really paying for is better heating properties, which are always the most important aspect of any piece of cookware (in our opinion). A pan with a nice, thick layer of heat-spreading aluminum (or copper) is always going to perform better than a pan stamped out of a thin sheet of aluminum. And a pan with a stainless exterior is always going to be more durable than a pan with an aluminum exterior.
However, the relatively short life of the nonstick coating--both PTFE and ceramic--makes these higher-end pans kind of like putting lipstick on a pig; the nonstick is always going to wear out long before the rest of the pan.
This doesn't mean you can't get good quality nonstick cookware for a low price. It just means that you probably shouldn't pay clad stainless prices for nonstick pans unless you have a lot of disposable income.
For more information, see our article The Best Nonstick Skillets: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy.
Expensive nonstick cookware probably isn't going to last appreciably longer than inexpensive nonstick cookware.
Myth #4: PTFE/Teflon™ Is Dangerous to Human Health.
This belief is the primary reason why people are on a search for "safe" and "healthy" nonstick cookware. PTFE/Teflon™ is made from hydrocarbons. It is a plastic. And it contains the other unhealthy compound PFOA (more on PFOA below). People love the ease of using nonstick cookware, but they don't love the possibilities that they're cooking on a toxic substance.
The truth is that PTFE/Teflon™ is a completely inert substance, at least in the form that's used on nonstick cookware. You could swallow a chunk of it and it would pass through your body completely unchanged, and without having any effect on your metabolism whatsoever.
PTFE only becomes potentially unsafe when it degrades, which happens at high heat. (And even then, there is little evidence that it's toxic.) It begins to give off fumes around 492F. (here's the Wikipedia page on PTFE again for more information.) This is why most manufacturers tell you to only use medium- or medium-high heat and to not put in an oven set higher than 400F.
492F may sound surprisingly low, but most food is cooked at temps well below 450F. If you follow use instructions on the nonstick pans, you will never heat the pan above medium high, which on most cooktops will keep you well below the threshold for PTFE degradation.
Having said that, these pans must be used with the proper precautions to remain safe: You can't use high heat. You can't heat the pans up without food in them. You can't use aerosol cooking spray (it reacts with the PTFE). And even when you follow all the right use instructions (and care instructions, as well--discussed below), regular use will take its toll on the PTFE over time. If your pan gets discolored--usually darkened--the PTFE has probably begun to degrade, which means it's time for a new pan. It's probably safe, but at the very least, it's begun to lose its nonstick properties. And in the off chance that it's not safe, why take the chance?
If you find any of this unnerving, or are concerned about people in your home who may not use your PTFE pans properly (teenage kids, for example), then don't buy PTFE pans. But the point is that, when used correctly, PTFE is not dangerous for human health (and probably even when not used correctly--but the jury is still not all the way in on that).
PTFE/Teflon™ is an inert substance and perfectly safe to ingest--unless heated to the point of degradation.
Myth #5: "PFOA-Free" Means PTFE (Teflon) Free.
Another popular misinformation tactic is to call the cookware "PFOA-free."
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was used for decades to manufacture PTFE cookware. It was used to help the slippery PTFE to adhere to the metal pan surface. PFOA was used up almost completely in the process, leaving extremely small trace amounts, if any, in the finished product.
However, PFOA became known as a very nasty chemical. It is a carcinogen, toxic to the liver, to the immune system, may cause developmental issues for fetuses, and more. Just as bad, PFOA is terrible for the environment because it doesn't break down by natural processes. Sadly, PFOA contamination is now found on every continent, and in trace amounts in most animals, including humans.
It's unlikely that human levels of PFOA can be attributed to PTFE cookware. PFOA is (or was) used in an astounding number of products, including waxed paper and microwave popcorn; we have a much higher probability of getting PFOA in our systems from these than from nonstick cookware.
Nevertheless, PTFE cookware got a reputation for being made with PFOA. This is another reason people began looking for "healthier" nonstick alternatives.
As of 2015, manufacturers stopped using PFOA in their nonstick cookware, and all PTFE cookware sold in the US today is PFOA-free.
Which is great, except sellers are now using the term "PFOA-free" to imply that their product is not made of PTFE. When in fact, if the claim "PFOA-free" is made, the cookware is almost certainly PTFE. If it's ceramic, then of course it's PFOA-free, too, but the seller will tell you right up front that it is "ceramic nonstick" and also "PTFE-free."
It's frustrating because many times people looking for "safe," or "healthy," or "PFOA-free" nonstick cookware are actually looking for non-PTFE cookware (for all the reasons mentioned under Myth #4). Thus, "PFOA-free" is a misleading term. While we don't think PTFE cookware is unsafe when used properly, the people who want to steer clear of it are misled into thinking "PFOA-free" means PTFE-free, when it often means the opposite.
PFOA-free does not automatically mean PTFE-free. In fact, it usually means the opposite. And since PFOA is now banned in the US, the term is largely meaningless, anyway.
If the seller doesn't state up front that their "PFOA-free" cookware is ceramic, then it's almost certainly PTFE.
Myth #6: "PFOA-Free" Means Cookware Is Completely Safe to Use
Thus far, manufacturers have not made it clear what they've replaced PFOA with. But we know they've replaced it with something, because PTFE needs help adhering to metal cookware surfaces. And chances are, whatever it is, it's probably similar in structure to PFOA.
One of the great myths in manufacturing is that if a company removes a dangerous chemical from a product then that product automatically becomes safe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Quite often, an unsafe chemical is replaced with something very similar--but since that chemical hasn't made a list of dangerous products (yet), people assume it's safe for human consumption.
Given that manufacturers have been pretty quiet on what they're using instead of PFOA, it's likely that whatever it is, it may not be much of an improvement.
We at Rational Kitchen aren't particularly worried about PFOA or similar substances in our PTFE cookware. It's used up almost entirely in the manufacturing process, so amounts left behind, if any, are so small they are probably insignificant to human health. Repeated studies show that PFOA buildup in humans does not come from cookware. According to this government site, water is the most common source of PFOA in humans. (We also no longer eat microwave popcorn.)
However, some people are concerned about it. The better-safe-than-sorry camp is not unwise in this particular situation. So if you're worried about these chemicals, then "PFOA-free" should be of little consolation to you, and you should steer clear of PTFE nonstick cookware altogether.
PFOA may have been replaced by a chemical just as bad, so if you're worried about it, steer clear of PTFE cookware altogether.
Myth #7: Nonstick Cookware Made Overseas Is Always Unsafe
Some people feel that nonstick cookware made overseas, particularly in China, may not be as safe as cookware made in the US or Western Europe. But the problem is, it's very hard to find nonstick cookware made in the US. Nearly all of the popular nonstick brands, from All-Clad to T-fal to Calphalon, are made overseas.
It's true: it's hard to avoid Chinese-made nonstick cookware. So here's the thing to remember: it's not so much where the cookware is made, but who the manufacturer is. If you buy a reputable brand, from All-Clad to Green Pan, you're going to get a product that's manufactured under strict guidelines and almost certainly safe for consumers (depending on how you define "safe," of course).
We would steer clear of unknown brands, particularly at the low end of the market. Those dirt-cheap ceramic pans you see on late night informercials? It's hard to know--so spend a few dollars more and buy a trusted brand. Whatever your concerns are, this is the best way to alleviate them.
If you buy a reputable brand, nonstick cookware should be safe to use (under proper conditions) no matter where it's manufactured.
Myth #8: Ceramic Nonstick Cookware Is Always Healthier than PTFE Nonstick Cookware
Ceramic cookware is the new kid in town, having only been around for a little over ten years. It's been hailed as the greatest thing to happen to cookware since sliced bread--or at least clad stainless.
People buy ceramic cookware because they're concerned about the potential health issues surrounding PTFE. After all, ceramic cookware is made from sand or clay, and what could be safer than that?
When manufactured under proper conditions, it seems true (to the best of our research) that ceramic nonstick is a safe, inert substance. However, be aware that some ceramic manufacturing processes can involve the use of cadmium, a known carcinogen. Some may also contain lead, particularly in the glaze (so mainly on the exterior and not the cooking surface). So it's possible that ceramic nonstick cookware may contain traces of cadmium or lead.
Also, there is some evidence that the sol-gel process used to make the ceramic adhere to the pan uses possibly carcinogenic nanoparticles. There isn't a lot of research on this but it's something to be aware of.
These are lesser known problems than the potential dangers of overheating PTFE and the carcinogenic properties of PFOA. But yes: ceramic nonstick might also be unsafe.
So if you want to go the ceramic route, we suggest that you buy a reputable brand. Avoid extremely cheap brands and brands that you've never heard of and/or have a hard time finding information about. We recommend Green Pan Lima, Zwilling Spirit, and Healthy Legend. (But know going in that ceramic is unlikely to last even as long as PTFE.) Know also that even good quality brands use titanium nanoparticles--which may be carcinogenic.
Cheap ceramic nonstick cookware may contain small amounts of cadmium or lead, and the titanium nanoparticles used in manufacturing may also be carcinogenic.
Myth #9: You Can Use Metal Utensils and Cooking Spray on Modern Nonstick Cookware
This isn't a myth so much as bad guidelines from companies that want to sell nonstick cookware.
Many of the new generation PTFE nonstick as well as the ceramics claim that you can use metal utensils on the pans, use high heat, use aerosol cooking spray, toss them in the oven, use abrasive scrubbing pads to clean them, and wash them in the dishwasher.
If you want your pans to last as long as possible, you won't do any of these things. If you do, you'll be buying new pans every 6 months, if not sooner. Because these are lethal enemies of nonstick coatings.
Why do they claim you can do these things, then? Because they want to sell you cookware. Remember, PTFE is the same molecule no matter which type of pan you buy. And while ceramic surfaces are tougher, these abuses still take their toll.
Related to this issue is the warranty: many nonstick pans also claim lifetime warranties. However, if you read user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, you will see that very, very few makers--even reputable makers like All-Clad!--honor these warranties.
Don't use metal utensils or abrasive scrubbing pads on nonstick cookware even if the manufacturer says you can. Don't use high heat with nonstick pans, put them in the oven, or put them in the dishwasher, even if the manufacturer says it's okay to do so.
Very few manufacturers honor their "lifetime" warranties on nonstick cookware, even if you never abused the pan in any way.
Myth #10: Nonstick Is Just as Good at Browning Food as Other Cookware
There are so many reasons to not have nonstick cookware be your go-to cookware. It's fragile. It wears out really fast. But probably most importantly, it doesn't brown food very well.
Because browning is where the flavor is!
Perhaps the biggest drawback of nonstick cookware: You can't use high heat, so it's hard to get nice crust on a steak or brown other foods. It simply won't produce that good Maillard reaction that adds so much flavor to your food.
And because you're going to have a tough time getting anything nicely browned, you're not going to have many crispy bits of flavor left to make a pan sauce.
Even if you ignore safety instructions and use high heat (which will kill your nonstick cookware faster than almost anything else, except maybe using metal utensils), you're still going to have a heck of a time getting a nice sear. Nonstick cookware just isn't made for that. Its inherent slipperiness is the natural enemy of browning.
Instead, you need clad stainless or cast iron, or, really, just about any other kind of cookware. In short, you need cookware you can crank up the heat on without worries, and also cookware that has a little stickiness to it--that's where those lovely brown bits come from.
Maybe you're trying to save a few calories by using nonstick cookware because you want to avoid adding fat to a pan. But the body needs fats to absorb certain nutrients--and good fats are actually a necessity for good health. So nutritionally speaking, you're better off using a few teaspoons of olive oil or avocado oil in a stainless pan and cutting those calories elsewhere. The payoff for a few extra calories is better nutrition--really!--and much better taste.
Nonstick isn't good for browning food or getting a nice crust on, well, anything. The nonstick surface isn't conducive to browning, and neither medium heat (the highest setting that's safe with PTFE cookware).
We hope we've cleared up some of the most persistent myths about nonstick cookware and shed some light on how to buy wisely and get the safety and healthiness you're looking for. When you're shopping, go deeper than the marketing jargon because it may not tell you what you really want to know.
Speaking of shopping, here are some of our cookware articles to help you out:
And thanks for reading!
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