There are hundreds of options of cookware, so which do you choose? It seems like every brand says they are healthy, non-toxic and safe, but are they really? The answer to that question is NO, they are not. So which brands are really safe? This investigation has been our most challenging so far. Not only do you need to be concerned by things like heavy metals and PFCs, but now also the presence of nanotechnology glazes, which has come under intense scrutiny as of late for leaching. We know you don’t have the time to dedicate 40+ hours investigating this industry, so Mamavation has done it for you! You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like plastic-free food storage products, which grocery stores have the safest food packaging, & health benefits to ditching plastic kitchen utensils, now join us for our cookware investigation. We’ve looked into every category of cookware and bakeware so you can rest easy.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
The Challenges of Cookware
There are problems with nearly every type of cookware on the market. Non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) are a deciding factor in the safety failure of many lines of cookware. The other two main things that determine the safety of cookware is the base material and the coating. During our research, we discovered there are really no safe coatings and they should all be avoided because of the inevitable wear down and crumbling that happens over time, exposing bare base materials that aren’t meant for food contact. But that’s not the worst of it, heavy metal leaching has been found in virtually all cookware food contact surfaces, even when it’s not metal-based. Does that shock you? We were surprised too that only a select few pots and pans meet the criteria of having relatively stable base materials and uncoated cooking surfaces. In fact, we only found one single truly toxin-free line, Visions uncoated glass cookware. Unfortunately, it’s not a practical solution for most people because of glass’ finicky and brittle nature, so the line was discontinued (although still available some places). UGH, moving on.
One day we’d love to see a totally safe and practical line of cookware free of all heavy metals and other toxins, but since our options are limited, our purpose here is concerned with food contact surfaces only since that’s the route toxic chemicals contained in cookware reach our food and get into our bodies. And because each type of Mamavation-approved cookware comes with its own cons, we also recommend you rotate between different categories to minimize constant exposure to any one material. Cooking with acidic foods exacerbates leaching, which is another reason it’s so important to use multiple methods of food preparation.
Toxins You Need to Be Aware of in Cookware
Unfortunately, we find ourselves swimming in cookware toxins. So much so that it’s difficult to find safe pots and pans to cook with. California Proposition 65 is a useful tool that identifies an extensive list of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals that are known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm. These chemicals include additives or ingredients in pesticides, common household products, food, drugs, dyes, or solvents. Listed chemicals may also be used in manufacturing and construction, or they may be byproducts of chemical processes, but overall, if a line of cookware passes the Prop 65 leach test, we can at least have some assurance that the products are relatively safe to use.
Here are the most toxic chemicals found in cookware that are hazardous to human health, and should always be avoided:
Lead is a constant headache for those of us looking for safe cookware. Nearly every brand of cookware claims to be lead-free, but it’s been repeatedly shown that there are actually low levels of lead (below Prop 65 standards) in many cookware products. This is problematic because lead is bioaccumulative, damages the body easily, and is extremely difficult to detox and recover from, and when we’re exposed on a daily basis. Lead exposure causes anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. Very high lead exposure can even cause death. Lead can cross the placental barrier, which means pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child. Lead can damage a developing baby’s nervous system. Even low-level lead exposures in developing babies have been found to affect behavior and intelligence. Lead exposure can cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility (in both men and women).
Non-stick coatings have become well known for their toxicity, and they’re bioaccumulative. Fluropolymers used in non-stick coatings were found to increase the incidents of tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands, and pancreas in lab animals. The EPA has also categorized perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) as likely carcinogenic. Also, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered a shocking statistic — 98% of Americans have detectable levels of PFAs or PFCs in their bodies. Mamavation has been studying PFC contamination closely in cookware, food packaging and water. These chemicals are linked with the following diseases and symptoms you don’t’ want:
- metabolic diseases like obesity & diabetes
- reduced vaccination response
- affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- increase cholesterol levels
- affect the immune system
- increase the risk of cancer
Cadmium is another commonly used heavy metal in the cookware industry used to achieve bright colors in ceramic cookware. It’s not supposed to be used in food contact surfaces, however, that’s not always the case. Cadmium is bioaccumulative and primarily toxic to the kidney and skeleton causing renal disfunction and bone demineralization. We recommend you don’t use any kitchen items that are red, orange or yellow as those colors tend to have intentionally added lead and/or cadmium.
Nickel is present in stainless steel cookware to prevent corrosion (rust) and heat damage. People who have a nickel or chromium sensitivity, or those whose bodies are heavy metal toxic, are the most at risk for negative health effects, however, animal studies have found increases in newborn deaths and decreases in newborn weight after ingesting nickel which may be an indicator that human children and babies are likely more sensitive to nickel exposure than adults.
Chromium is another metal used in the manufacture of stainless steel. Less than 10% of ingested chromium is absorbed, but absorbed chromium is distributed to nearly all tissues, with the highest concentrations found in kidneys and liver. Bone is also a major depot and may contribute to long-term retention. Much the same as nickel, certain types of industrial chromium have caused miscarriages, low birth weight, and changes in development of skeleton and reproductive system in lab animals which may be an indicator that human children and babies are likely more sensitive to chromium exposure than adults.
Nanoparticles have been recently discovered as a leaching byproduct of ceramic coatings. Nano titanium dioxide is the most prevalent substance found and is hazardous because it’s been shown to cause immune system disruption and pre-cancerous lesions in the gut. Nanoparticles themselves are problematic because their tiny size allows them to enter most areas of the body and wreak havoc in the most pervasive ways. For example, asbestos is a carcinogenic nanoparticle that has taken many people’s lives. Mamavation has taken a hard stance against nanotechnology in ceramic glazes.
Aluminum is ubiquitous in cookware. Aluminum is bioaccumulative and a known neurotoxin that can cause neurological disorders like dementia. Aluminum cookware is an obvious culprit, but it’s also been found present at lower levels in ceramic and stainless steel cooking products. Aluminum can also cause slow growth in children, speech problems, seizures and eventual system toxicity that causes serious problems including anemia, nervous system trouble, and bone and brain diseases.
Types and Brands of Aluminum Cookware to Avoid
It’s important to avoid aluminum-based cookware because aluminum leaches easily when exposed, and based on our research, there’s no aluminum cookware coating that’s been proven safe and durable enough to protect from aluminum exposure. Be sure to read through our findings on ceramic-enameled aluminum below to learn why we can’t recommend it. Most of the following brands offer multiple types of cookware, so be sure to shop carefully and choose only non-aluminum pieces:
Cast Aluminum (uncoated aluminum)
- Ballarini Parma
- Fox Run
- Le Creuset
- Pampered Chef
- Rachael Ray
- Blue Diamond
- Cook N Home
- Food Network
- Fox Run
- Instant Pot ceramic non-stick liner
- Pioneer Woman
- Rachael Ray
- Trisha Yearwood
Copper Ceramic-enameled Aluminum
- Copper Chef
- Culinary Edge
- Gotham Steel
- Red Copper
Details on Ceramic, Stoneware, Porcelain Cookware and Bakeware
Glazed cookware has been our biggest challenge. As a whole, ceramic appears to be very problematic due to the glazes used on food contact surfaces. As previously stated, coatings of any kind are bound to wear down and chip away into food, and ceramic glazes are no different. Ceramic coatings are too fragile for long-term use and tend to scratch and chip away leaving bare base materials that immediately start contaminating your food. We’ve also uncovered extremely shocking information about quasi-ceramic coatings you find on the newest “green and healthy” cookware in addition to well-known brands of ceramic enameled cast iron and stainless steel, and because third-party independent lab testing is virtually non-existent (and certainly not made readily available to the public online), we can’t recommend any ceramic-enameled products at all and only one ceramic cookware line.
Most ceramic cookware manufacturers will tell you they test for heavy metals and don’t even use them in food contact surfaces. The problem is that virtually no one has third-party test results to back up their claims, and we don’t run on trust alone. Proof is a must! This is our family we are trying to protect.
And we ran into some issues with one of the most popular brands–Le Cruset. Here’s what Le Creuset had to say about the presence of lead and cadmium in their products. (colorful designs)
Cadmium and lead are two elements under strict control in the cookware industry. Our position today for the entire production process is to be in compliance with California Proposal 65 which is the most rigid standard in the world for these elements (approx. 10 times lower than “acceptable” limits). Lead is NOT used in our recipes and for cadmium a special anti-acid enamel fritt is used which will not release the cadmium pigment during cooking. Cadmium is used for coloration purposes in achieving bright exterior colors such as Flame and Cherry. The interior enamel which makes contact with food is either sand, white, or black.
However, when independently tested, there was both lead and cadmium found in measurable amounts in Le Creuset food contact surfaces, although levels appear to be below Prop 65 standards for toxicity. And strangely, high levels of aluminum were discovered in three Le Creuset products when used to cook acidic foods like tomatoes in a normal kitchen scenario. While one round of tests doesn’t provide a definitive answer, the levels are alarming and it’s still unclear why the aluminum was present at all, which may point to yet another problem with ceramic cookware. It’s also been shown that aluminum leaches from enameled cast iron as well. Buyer beware.
At this time, it’s extremely difficult to confirm any independent test results that prove the safety of any types of ceramic, stoneware and porcelain cookware and bakeware (both glazed and unglazed). If any brand would like to submit valid testing for our review, we’d be happy to re-evaluate our assessments.
Nanoparticles in Quasi-Ceramic Cookware Coatings
Nanoparticles are tiny particles measured on the nanometer (nm) scale ranging from 1-100 nm in size. But what size is that really? For a little perspective, think of a single human hair. It measures up to 100,000 in width compared to the maximum nanoparticle which is only 100 nm wide. Or alternatively, the difference between a particle and nanoparticle is the difference between a tennis ball and the Earth. Becoming wildly popular in the scientific community, nanoparticles have an extremely large surface area which makes them more effective and useful as catalysts to speed up reactions. Nanoparticles also support the functioning of materials which means they increase the likelihood that whatever an objective will be achieved. The same has to be true of any negative, unintended effects as well.
And as noted by nano.gov, many of the inner workings of cells are naturally occurring at the nanoscale size. Hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen through the body, is 5.5 nm in diameter, and a strand of DNA is only 2 nm in diameter. Clearly, the logical conclusion is that nanoparticles also have the potential to inflict great damage because they can translocate to many parts of the body once inside including the brain, heart, lungs and other organs, and can be easily ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin because of their tiny size.
When it comes to cookware, the scientific peer-reviewed journal Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A reported on the discovery of titanium dioxide nanoparticles leaching from quasi-ceramic non-stick coatings into food via low and high stress testing and degredation of the coating itself which consists of a silicone polymer matrix with embedded micro and nanosized titanium dioxide particles and quartz silicium dioxide.
It was found that thermal degradation (cooking up to 350° F) had a negligible affect on nanoparticle release, but mechanical degradation studies showed that when the surface begins to scratch and wear and become damaged during normal use, the release of titanium-containing nanoparticles becomes significant. It’s been proven that chronic oral exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles results in immune disruption and pre-cancer lesions in the gut, however, such little is known about nanoparticles as a whole, we certainly don’t understand the extent to which they can and do negatively effect the body.
The ONLY Safe Ceramic Cookware We Found
Xtrema by Ceramcor is an all-ceramic line of cookware that passes the stringent CA Prop 65 leach testing, and is the only brand of ceramic cookware Mamavation recommends. There are no nanoparticles used in production and each batch is third-party tested for lead and cadmium migration. Although Xtrema is made in China, the company’s factory is dedicated to their cookware and is under close supervision. Please note that independent testing using an XRF instrument found chromium, nickel and cobalt in the substrate clay material of Xtrema products which the company states is naturally occurring in clay, however, the cookware still passes all Prop 65 leaching tests which means the substances are unable to migrate out of the product.
We reached out to Xtrema to get you a discount in case you would like to purchase some of their non-toxic products. They’ve offered Mamavation fans 25% off almost everything!
Stainless Steel Cookware
Stainless steel cookware releases low levels of nickel and chromium, especially when cooking acidic foods like tomatoes. The biggest concern is for people who have a nickel or chromium sensitivity, or those whose bodies are heavy metal toxic. The National Institutes of Health report that metal leaching decreases with sequential cooking cycles and appear to stabilize after the sixth cycle, though significant metal contributions to foods were still observed. And as with any piece of cookware, obviously damaged stainless steel pots and pans should be discarded and replaced to reduce potential heavy metal exposure, especially with cookware that has an aluminum core because it leaches so badly when exposed. Overall, any all stainless steel cookware is safe to use, but the amount of metal migration is dependent on stainless steel grade, cooking time, and cookware usage, so we encourage use of high quality, surgical grade stainless steel cookware whenever possible, and even the purchase of nickel-free cookware. Here are the brands we recommend that offer uncoated stainless steel products:
- Chantal SLIN-9 Induction Cookware (copper core, no aluminum)
- Cuisinart MCP Multi-Clad Pro
- Fox Run
- Hammer Stahl 316Ti (stainless steel with titanium instead of nickel)
- Homi Chef (18/0 nickel-free stainless steel)
- Le Creuset Stainless Steel Set
- Princess House
- T-fal Performa Stainless Steel Set
- Viking Professional Stainless Steel Cookware
Types and Brands of Stainless Steel Cookware to Avoid
Non-stick Stainless Steel
It’s important to avoid stainless steel cookware with non-stick coatings. Most of the following brands offer both uncoated and non-stick stainless steel, so be sure to shop carefully and choose only uncoated stainless steel cookware:
- Black + Decker
- Mr Rudolf
- Pampered Chef
- Princess House
Ceramic-enameled Stainless Steel
Ceramic-enameled stainless steel is another category to avoid. Most of the following brands offer more than one type of cookware, so be sure to shop carefully and choose only uncoated stainless steel:
- JA Henckels
- Todd English
- Zwilling (titanium ceramic)
Stainless Steel Lined Copper Cookware
This is safer cookware as lined out in the stainless steel section above, and because the copper is a non-food contact surface, we aren’t as concerned with migration. Here are the brands we recommend:
- ExcelSteel Professional Cookware Copper Lining
- KitchenAid Professional Cookware Copper Lining Set
- Lagostina Martellata Tri-ply Hammered Stainless Steel Copper Set
- Mauviel M’Heritage 12 Piece Copper Cookware Set
Cast Iron Cookware
Cast iron and carbon steel both contain ferric iron (non-absorbable) vs ferrous iron (natural form in foods). They’re safe to use, but be sure to rotate your pans as recommended because too much ferric iron uptake is bad for the body and can deplete vitamin C levels. Note that cooking acidic foods in iron cookware increases the release of iron. Here are the brands Mamavation recommends:
- Finex Modern Heirloom Frying Pan (seasoned with organic flax oil vs soybean oil)
- King Kooker Cast Iron Skillet
- Lodge Cast Iron Combo Set
- Simple Chef 3 Piece Cast Iron Set
- Universal Housewares Cast Iron Square Grill
- Westinghouse Special Seasoned Cast Iron Dutch Oven
Types and Brands of Cast Iron Cookware to Avoid
Ceramic-enameled Cast Iron
Ceramic-enameled and non-stick cast iron should be avoided. Most of the following brands offer more than one type of cookware, so be sure to shop carefully and choose only uncoated cast iron:
- Hamilton Beach
- Le Chef
- Le Creuset
- Le Cuistot
- Martha Stewart
Carbon Steel Cookware
Carbon steel is the sister of cast iron, but despite its name contains more iron and less carbon than cast iron. It’s lightweight, versatile and convenient to use, but still releases ferric iron so it should be rotated regularly between your other cookware options. Remember to avoid cooking with acidic foods in these pans. Here are the brands we recommend:
- De Buyer Round Carbon Steel Fry Pan
- ICON Pre-seasoned Wok
- Joyce Chen Pro-Chef Flat Bottomed Wok
- Lodge Carbon Steel Skillet
- Matfer Black Steel Paella Pan
- Mauviel French M’Steel Back Frying Pan
- Mineral B Round Carbon Steel Steak Frying Pan
- Paderno World Cuisine Black Steel Frying Pan
Glass Bakeware & Cookware
Glass is an inert substance if there are no coatings or decorations on the product. As we’ve seen, coatings, in general, are a huge problem, and we found that non-stick nanofilms are being developed for glass bakeware so be sure to purchase only uncoated glass products. Here are the brands we recommend:
Visions Cookware (discontinued some line, but still available)
- Anchor Hocking 15 Piece Glass Bakeware Set
- Creo SmartGlass 2 Quart Baking Dish
- Glasslock 4 Piece Square Bakeware Set
- Libbey Bakeware 7 Piece Glass Bakeware & Casserole Set
- Pyrex Bakeware Oven Bakeware Set
- Simax Glass Fluted Bundt Cake Bakeware
Clay Bakeware & Small Kitchen Appliances
Clay can be very hazardous when the geographical origins are unknown. We could locate only two brands of clay cookware that conduct testing for heavy metals commonly found in clay and glazes. Both companies do not glaze their products, so the testing reflects the makeup of the clay itself. Here are the brands we recommend:
Cookware and Bakeware Categories to Avoid
Cookware and bakeware are one of the hardest categories to navigate as a consumer. We understand how complicated this is so we created a list for you to run by when you are planning your purchases. As a rule of thumb, here is a list of the cookware to avoid.
- any non-stick cookware
- any aluminum cookware
- enameled aluminum cookware
- hard-anodized aluminum cookware
- enameled hard-anodized aluminum
- ceramic slow cookers*
- enameled cast iron
- soapstone is a metamorphic rock that consists primarily of talc with other minerals. We recommend avoiding soapstone cookware because talc is part of the asbestos family, and depending on where it’s mined, asbestos is a potential contaminant present in soapstone.
- unlined copper cookware exposes the body to too much copper through migration during cooking.
- stoneware and porcelain bakeware carries the same dangers as ceramic cookware.
- silicone bakeware should be avoided because there isn’t enough scientific research to verify that silicone does not leach out of cookware and into food.
*Note that at-home lead testers aren’t sensitive enough to show a positive for anything less than 600 ppm.
Final Notes on Cookware & Bakeware
Unfortunately, there is very little perfection here. So the best rule of thumb is to get several of these pots and pans and rotate between them. That will minimize the problems you want to avoid. Ceramic glazes have been disappointing because of nanoparticles glaze leaching into food. So be cautious about any “new” model of ceramic that promises the world to you. And remember if you purchase cast iron, don’t cook acidic foods in it.
We want to be of service to you, so if you find cookware that you are unsure of please post about it in the comment sections and we will look at it as soon as we can. And if you are from a company you think we missed, please email us at leah (at) bookieboo (dot) com and provide documentation of testing. If you are a ceramic brand, we will need to see more than just heavy metal testing. We will want to see something about nanoparticle migration. Thanks!