In the 1990s, non-stick cookware became popular in India to coincide with two social changes—the increasing number of working women who saw it’s easy, fuss-free cleaning process as a time saver and the huge consciousness about health and fat-free diets. A non-stick pan is one where the underlying material is coated with a chemical that provides a slick, low-friction surface that allows you to take out the food from the vessel easily, and hence use less oil. Great for a country that is at high risk for heart disease and diabetes.
Now, what is this coating made of?
Most often it is made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a compound of carbon and fluorine. The brand name of PTFE is Teflon, which is a registered trademark of DuPont, in whose laboratories it was discovered accidentally in 1938.
In recent years, there have been grave concerns over the health impact of non-stick cookware owing to the leakage of the chemicals coating the utensil into the food. The Dupont website of course dispels any such fears, citing published scientific research, clearances by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the sheer number of pots and pans sold— two billion— and the fact that they’ve been in the business for 40 years, as good reasons to believe them. (Sceptics, however, point out that DuPont is a multi-million dollar company whom the US establishment can ill-afford to displease.) Be that as it may, let’s focus only on the facts given in DuPont’s own website (mentioned in bullets):
• PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is a processing aid used in the manufacture of the fluoropolymer material contained in the liquid non-stick coating. Some studies suggest that there may be trace amounts of residual PFOA in the final coatings. However, the potential exposure to PFOA is of such low levels, that the risk to the consumer is negligible. To date, there are no human health effects known to be caused by PFOA, although study of the chemical continues.
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I am always a bit nervous when large corporations cite so-called low doses of chemicals as a reason not to worry. If you’ve ingested lots of low doses of PFOA for many years, wouldn’t that make it a high dose concentrated in your body? PFOA is associated with cancers and developmental issues. DuPont reached an $8.4 million settlement with New Jersey residents when it’s plant contaminated a community’ s tap water with PFOA. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed with DuPont that the use of PFOA should be phased out by 2015. Why would that be required if PFOA was harmless?
• What happens if non-stick-coated cookware is overheated? At high temperatures, the quality of the coating may begin to deteriorate—it may discolour or lose its non-stick quality. This can begin to occur at temperatures above 500°F (260°C)… the coating may begin to decompose and give off fumes. The fumes that are released by overheated polymer can produce symptoms referred to as polymer fume fever—flu-like symptoms that are relatively quickly reversed in humans. Over the past 40 years, there have been only a few reported accounts of polymer fume fever as a result of severely overheating non-stick cookware. Cooking fumes, smoke and odours that have little or no effect on people can seriously sicken and kill birds, often quite quickly.
The Good Housekeeping Research Institute, New York, which is the product evaluation laboratory of the magazine, found in an experiment that all it took was a couple of minutes of heating an empty lightweight pan on a high flame for the 500°F threshold to be crossed, or about 9 minutes of heating a heavyweight pan. That’s about the time it would take to make three chappatis and feed one family member. Some health experts have pointed out that these fumes not only cause a temporary flu but are carcinogenic. Also, scraping off the coating can result in ingestion of Teflon. DuPont is confident that this, too, is harmless. Toxicologists, however, are sure it is damaging and strongly advice throwing out chipped or damaged non-stick utensils. If the chipped Teflon coats aluminium cookware, the metal that leaks into the food can result in ulcers and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
To use non-stick cookware safely, DuPont recommends: Cook only on low or medium heat, empty pan to never be heated, follow manufacturers instructions strictly—scrub gently with a plastic scrubber so that the coating doesn’t come off, only use wooden and non-metal spoons to stir or scrape or flip.
My question is simple: Is such caution practical in a regular Indian kitchen? With paranthas and dosas requiring us to first heat the tawa to a nice high, how can we prevent the Teflon coating from fuming? The wooden spoon is too thick to flip a dosa with. With a hurried maid servant cleaning vessels, it’s near impossible to ensure she uses the right scrubber and rubs the non-stick pan gently.
There’s a new alternative called anodized aluminium cookware. Anodisation is a process that builds up the metal’s natural oxide coating forming a tough, scratch-proof surface. It locks the underlying aluminium in and prevents it from leaking.
As for me, this weekend I am trashing all my non-stick pans, and buying an old fashioned cast iron kadhai and tawa from a shop near my house. I figured even if I use a teaspoon more of oil, it’s better than the unknown risks of chemicals leaching into my food. It’s what star dietician Rujuta Diwekar also advocates in her best-selling book Don’t Lose your Mind, Lose your Weight. Apparently, it’s a great way to increase the iron content of your food. And that little oil or ghee you will use will improve the meal’s nutritional value, she says.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.