Perhaps some of the tastiest food I’ve ever had was aloo chat bought from the vendor outside my school. I still drool at the memory of those fried pieces of potato, liberally spiced with lime juice and dust, wrapped in tattered old newspapers. When my mother, on investigating the cause of a frequently bad tummy, heard of my post-school diet, she was horrified. She forbade me to eat from those vendors, and compensated by making aloo chat at home instead. But somehow it never tasted the same, and I’ve long suspected that it was the dust and newspapers as much as the lime juice which made that chat special.
It made me think about what goes into our food every day, beyond the obvious ingredients. How and where we cook and store (or heat) our food does make a difference to what we eat.
Pumping up the iron
Perhaps one of the reasons we get nostalgic about grandma’s cooking is because it was before non-stick pans became a ubiquitous presence in the kitchen. Cooking in those big, cast-iron ‘karais’ (wok) probably not only added to the taste, but also to nutrition. Several studies over the decades have shown that iron molecules from these utensils can leach into the food, adding to the iron content of the food by anything from 6 to 39 times, according to one Brazilian assessment.
Indian studies have also shown that cooking in iron pots increases levels of haemoglobin, a key component of blood which carries oxygen to all parts of the body. Consequently, they help fight anaemia, particularly in pregnant women. Indeed, one commentator in the reputed medical journal ‘Lancet’ has also suggested cooking in traditional pots could help tackle anaemia (and related maternal and neonatal issues) in developing countries.
Iron pots, however, need a lot of care, so it’s not surprising that they have been replaced by stainless steel, aluminium and non-stick utensils. Stainless steel vessels—made of iron, chromium and other metals such as nickel, sometimes with copper base for better conduction of heat—are considered relatively inert. According to the US food and drugs administration (USFDA), there is no known health hazard from leaching of stainless steel.
A (non-)sticky choice
The material used for making non-stick utensils has been considered safe by the USFDA. Some scientists do say one of the chemicals used in the process of rendering utensils non-stick has been implicated in cancer in animals, but no such evidence has been seen so far in human beings. Besides, that chemical is only part of the process and does not remain in the finished utensil. It is important, however, to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. It is also important not to leave a non-stick pan on a burner without oil or water or some other coating—if heated to high temperatures, it could release toxic fumes.
The aluminium effect
Utensils made of aluminium conjure some fear, as the metal has been implicated in diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. However, if experts are to be believed, leaching—and therefore harm—from good-quality aluminium vessels is negligible. One study showed that leaching from such utensils amounted to only 0.1mg of aluminium per millilitre per day, whereas a normal adult generally consumes about 80 times that amount just from his or her usual food.
Cracks in the pottery
One does have to be careful, however, when it comes to ceramic or pewter vessels, whether used for cooking or storing food. Ceramics, particularly handcrafted ones that have not been through safety checks, often contain lead. Consuming lead beyond certain safe limits has been shown to cause neurological disorders, reproductive problems, diminished intelligence and a host of other ills. Lead water pipes in ancient Rome are said to have gradually spread impotency and contributed to the downfall of the Roman empire. Putting acidic substances—sour curries, tomato-based sauces, soy sauce, juices, coffee—into a glazed pottery cup can have the effect of lead dissolving into the food. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead toxicity.
Similarly, while heating food in a microwave oven, only plastic containers deemed microwave-safe should be used. In other types of plastic containers, there is a danger of certain molecules in plastic leaching out.
With so many variables going into the food, it’s not surprising that recipes made by one person never quite taste the same in another kitchen. It all boils down to pots and pans!
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Supriya Bezbaruah writes on health and science, and contributes this monthly column for Business of Life. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org